What a podcast needs to do to put on a good live show (and why so many are trying)

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 138, published October 31, 2017.

Happy Halloween folks!

Subscriptions at a personal level. When I wrote about Panoply’s paid kids-oriented listening service, Pinna, earlier this month, I was drawn to a question that didn’t end up being articulated in the piece: Does a subscription-first audio product need to be big? Pinna’s explicit goal, as I understand it, is to become the “premiere kids listening service,” pushed forward with a long-term strategy of building the first and last stop for any parent looking for stuff to swap out screen time with an aural alternative. But is it possible just to build a self-contained audio subscription business that isn’t premised on an expansive content acquisition strategy?

Shortly after the Pinna write-up went out, Lindsay Patterson, the cofounder of children’s podcast advocacy group Kids Listen, reached out, flagging the existence of a small Austin, Texas–based operation called Sparkle Stories. Founded by Lisabeth and David Sewell McCann, Sparkle Stories is an independent media company that serves customers with over a thousand original audio stories for children. There are two things about Sparkle Stories that are noteworthy: first, all of the stories are produced and performed by David, a former elementary school educator adept at telling pedagogical stories, and second, the service charges $15 a month…and, from what Lisabeth tells me, business seems to be good.

While the two declined to provide hard numbers, they did disclose having “thousands of subscribers” from around the world, enough to sustain as a business. The two are the only people who work on the company full-time — David since the beginning, Lisabeth transitioning out of her day job after about a year — and the company brings in enough revenue to compensate eight part-time employees who also work on other projects. Sparkle Stories is completely bootstrapped, with one successful Kickstarter excursion in 2015 to fund the development of a listening app. (That campaign brought in over $48,000 from 1,174 backers.)

Sparkle Stories was formed in 2010 when, as Lisabeth put it, “mom blogs were big and getting bigger.” Mr. Rogers is cited as a major source of inspiration (interestingly enough, David enunciates a lot like the sweatered public media icon himself), and it’s reflected in the team’s goals. “Our mission is to make stuff that’s nurturing, and slow, for kids,” Lisabeth said. “We’re all about bringing media back to a simple, sweet place.”

Simplicity might be the editorial north star, but it’s supported by a robust operational structure. Though the Sparkle Stories inventory is primarily stored and distributed behind a paywall, the company also makes use of a podcast feed that serves five free episodes to prospective paid customers — or consumers of more modest means. The inventory itself is managed through a website that further supplements the audio stories with a host of related digital material that broadens out topical experiences: recipes, craft lessons, parent education. “The podcast is only the beginning,” David explained. “It brings people to the next step, which is a website full of child development information. The story is only the beginning, and then you continue on. And that’s what people are willing pay for.”

Sparkle Stories has a bunch of things planned for the future. The team hopes to continue making the website experience as easy as possible for children and families, such that, in David’s words, “a child can look for a story about a wombat, or about Idaho, and then suddenly there are three stories about that, and then they can put the device down and listen.” An Android app is somewhere on the horizon, to complement the existing iOS app. There are further ambitions to figure out ways to integrate with smart speaker devices, which seems to be catching on among “millennial parents and their kids,” as AdWeek points out. (Though data privacy concerns remain an issue.) However, despite these plans, Lisabeth and David are comfortable taking on a slow, organic approach to growing the operation. “We tried a lot of the traditional ways to market and build our business, and they just didn’t work,” they explained. “Sponsored content, traditional advertising, Facebook and Google stuff…but the thing that really ended up working more than anything is for us to help somebody love what we’re doing.”

That approach, it seems, is partly driven by a sense of caring for their customers, whose parenting lives the McCanns feel partially responsible for. “It’s that Seth Godin thing of just taking care of your tribe,” David said. “We took that to heart. And so we create, create, create, we’re on schedule for three or four stories a week. Offer a lot, and if people want more, they’ll be more than happy to pay for it.”

You can find more about Sparkle Stories on their website.

Two extraneous threads:

(1) One question that stands out to me: assuming that all goes as intended for this sector of the on-demand audio universe, can there be a paid kids’ podcasting ecosystem that be equally occupied by a primary dominant one-size-fits-all service and a constellation of personally driven, independent, and presumably niche players? I imagine there’s something to be gleaned from looking at the makeup of the digitally distributed audiobook world, now dominated by Audible and a host of much smaller alternatives — Scribd, Overdrive, Kobo, and so on — even though the latter group in this composition isn’t terribly differentiated from the former, at least on my read.

(2) Not directly related but still thematically appropriate, I guess: Patreon, the creator support platform that raised $60 million last month, recently announced a new platform initiative that lets its users better integrate with other tools and platforms that they’ve been using to manage the membership process. Quite a few podcast publishers use Patreon to tap into direct listener support, including and especially the “dirtbag left” podcast Chapo Trap House, which still reigns as the biggest Patreon campaign that brings in over $86,000 a month from slightly over 19,500 backers. Crazy.

Acast aims to go public on the Stockholm Stock Exchange. The news comes about a month after the company raised $19.5 million in Series B funding from a group of Swedish investors, with the apparent intent to use that money to build its presence in the United States, the UK, and Australia. With this exit, they’ll have access to further capital for those attempts. Di Digital, a Swedish news site, has a write-up that I, uh, had to run by some Swedish-speaking friends and readers (thanks, fellas). Here are the bits that stood out to me:

  • The company’s valuation is pegged at around SEK 1.1 billion (Swedish kroner), which comes to around $131 million USD.
  • Last year, Acast drew SEK 49.8 million (slightly under $6 million USD) in revenue, but ran at a loss of SEK 52.5 million (slightly over $6 million USD).
  • As part of the Swedish IPO, founders Måns Ulvestam and Karl Rosander are leaving their operational roles in the company and, having done their jobs, will leave Ross Adams, a former Sales Director at Spotify, in the CEO spot.

This brings the number of publicly listed, podcast-specific companies up to three — that I know of, I guess — the other two being LibSyn (trading on the Nasdaq as LSYN) and, somewhat arguably, Audioboom (trading on the London Stock Exchange as BOOM), which also deals with digital audio more broadly. I think it might be useful to skim through Audioboom’s annual report to get a sense of how Acast will be positioning its growth metrics, given the similarities in structure, levers, and function in the market.

Meanwhile, in the Great North. There’s apparently a new research report floating around that focuses on Canadian podcast consumption, conducted by Audience Insights, a Canadian audience research firm, and Ulster Media, a podcast consulting company started by former CBC director of digital talk content Jeff Ulster. It was produced with support from The Globe and Mail.

The full report isn’t available at this point in time, it seems, only a summary report with some initial findings that you can view in this link. Nonetheless, there are a couple of data points that are worth unspooling in your head, in case you’re up to something in that neck of the woods:

  • Twenty-four percent of Canadians over the age of 18, or 7 million people, report listening to podcasts at least once a month. (Comparable stats: 17 percent of the Australian population over 12, 24 percent of the American population over 12.)
  • The demographic is pretty much what you’d hink it would be: trends younger, more affluent, and more educated, also leans male. That’s more or less in the same bucket as Australia and the U.S.
  • Here’s one that really stands out to me: “47 percent of (Canadian) podcast listeners say they would like to hear more about what Canadian podcasts are available.”

My knowledge of Canada and podcasting is relatively limited. In my estimation, the institutions to watch are: the CBC, obviously, but also the branded podcast shop Pacific Content and Jesse Brown’s Canadaland. Also: there is a sneakily abundant number of Canadians all throughout the American podcast industry — I see you Berube — and Montreal is still pretty sweet for radio producers, given the manageable rent prices. (Note to self: abscond to Montreal.)

In transition. This isn’t a new phenomenon by any means, but there have been three podcast-to-broadcast developments that’ve hit my inbox over the past month:

(1) NPR’s “It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders” started rolling out to a bunch of stations earlier this month (list can be found on this here Twitter thread), in some ways to plug the big Car Talk–sized hole that seems to popping up here and there.

(2) Politico’s Morning Media newsletter ran this mini-profile a few weeks ago: The Takeout is a podcast hosted CBS News’ Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett and political director Steve Chaggari. It originally launched just before President Trump’s inauguration as a side project, and eventually cultivated a fairly small following (about 80,000 monthly downloads on a roughly weekly publishing schedule). But it gained enough listeners to get it repurposed as a TV show on CBS’s streaming network and re-distributed over several terrestrial stations owned and operated by CBS.

I’m pretty fascinated by this use of podcasts as testing ground for potential broadcast material, though I’ll be interested to see what emerges in the Venn Diagram overlap of what works on both broadcast and podcast. (The inverse would also be intriguing to unspool: shows starting in broadcast that would later find more heat as a podcast. Radiolab, I think, is a good example of this.)

(3) iHeartMedia aired Wondery and Mark Ramsey’s Inside Psycho, which was originally published as a six-episode podcast, as a one-hour broadcast Halloween special over the weekend on select iHeartRadio News/Talk radio stations across the country. Curiously, the press release calls the arrangement “the first time a made-for-podcast show will air across broadcast radio”…which isn’t exactly true. Between 2012 and 2014, Slate had a program called Gabfest Radio, which condensed the Political and Culture Gabfests into a one-hour broadcast, that aired as a weekly show on WNYC. NPR, as well, began packaging a joint hour of Planet Money and How I Built This for broadcast over the summer. (And not to mention the various times a public radio podcast story was re-formatted for All Things Considered.)

Finally, there’s also the recently departed Dinner Party Download, which originally launched as a podcast in 2008 before being picked up a few years later by American Public Media for broadcast as a radio hour. So, technically, DPD might have more claim over being the first time ever that a made-for-podcast show was picked up for terrestrial radio. But who’s checking, y’know?

Politician-speak. As you might expect, I deeply enjoyed this critique of podcasting politicians by Amanda Hess over at the New York Times. Hess’s central barb, which comes around the middle of the piece, is a dual-pronged affair that gives shape to something that I’ve been feeling for while now: “The lawmaker podcast boom is just another way that our political news is becoming less accountable to the public and more personality driven. But that’s not the only thing wrong with it. The podcasts are also boring.”

That dual point on accountability and actual listenability illustrates the vaguely lose-lose proposition that the politician podcasting genre poses to the public. On the one hand, if the show is literally hard and pointless to consume, then it really sucks to be littered with them. But on the other hand, if the show turns out to be an experience worth sitting down with, then you’re grappling with the much hairier prospect of a more undefined (and unregulated) form of political communication, with all the spin, worldview expression, and image management that it entails.

Not that political communication is a thing inherently worth balking at, of course. Political figures and candidates need spaces to reach their constituents and sites to flesh out their philosophies, policy positions, and reasons for politically being. (Provided they have those things, of course.) It’s just that Hess’s point on accountability — that the general structural arc of these political figures going direct and fully controlling the terms of their messaging, that the power of the personality is the mechanism disproportionately empowered by everything we’ve seen in digital media so far — is the shadow that looms large here, and it brings up the question of whether the larger opportunity that these structural shifts gives to hermetically sealed political communication is a tide that can be stopped. We’re starting to see statements by politicians made in podcast appearances being written up, though not necessarily mediated, by political news sites — by way of example, here are three instances in The Hill — yet one can’t but ask whether any of that will ever be enough. Indeed, one wonders that the thing that’s really been blunting the edge of this political opportunity, of the continued empowerment of the Personality, so far is the fact that the overwhelming majority of politicians as a class don’t or still haven’t figured out the personality part of the equation.

This parallel has probably already been made many times before, but it bears bumping: a lot can be learned from what’s long been playing out in the sports world, where celebrity athletes have, perhaps not categorically but certainly in more than a few specific paradigm-altering instances, been able to utilize various digitally enabled media channels to amp up the power of the personality and dis-intermediate the gatekeeping/filtering capacities of the sports press. In the NBA alone, you have a variety of examples ranging from the Players Tribune to Joel Embiid’s surely-contract-padding social media prowess to LeBron James’ budding Uninterrupted media empire, whose premise hinges on players directly communicating with fans (and whose machinations involves several podcasts which were briefly profiled back in June by the Wall Street Journal). All of this amounts to a considerable challenge to the power, purpose, and intermediating role of the press, and while the actual details, terms, and broader implications of that dynamic change can be argued, the fact of the matter remains: the press is arguable.

(By the way, here’s my favorite story illustrating the fight between press and Personality: Grantland’s “Distant Thunder: What Did Oklahoma City’s Media Do to Piss Off Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant?”)

Anyway, that’s enough of that. But one more thing about Hess’s piece: her point on boring-ness — and on folks probably needing to put effort into something full-time, or at least meaningfully so, to make anybody worth anybody’s time — is probably a lesson that should be applied up and down the podcast directory, from celebrities to journalists to news organizations to independents.

From the mailbag. Eh, why not?

I’d be curious to know your take on podcasts doing live performances. I feel like EVERY podcast I listen to has done one of these. Why? I can only guess that the ticket sales for these events make a ton of money for them? More than ads? Crooked Media has done a ton of these. RadioLab, WTF, Gimlet Media, hell even the NPR Politics podcast is doing one soon. NPR! What is driving this??

— Nevin, from Iowa

Someone I knew once described seeing The Read live as a religious experience. This was a few years back, and while I don’t recall much else about her description of the show, I do remember this: I don’t believe I’ve ever been as enthusiastic about anything as she was talking about witnessing Crissle and Kid Fury on stage.

Anyway, point is: Live podcast shows are great. Provided they don’t suck, of course. (Which is the simple truth of everything that’s ever existed.)

Though the observation you make is actually a pretty tricky one to appraise. I think you’re right in there being a noticeable uptick in podcast creators building out a live events circuit — I feel like the stuff I’ve been seeing in my inbox alone can reflect this —  but it’s also worth noting that live podcast shows have long been a practice in vogue. Radiolab and WTF with Marc Maron have been staging live shows going way back (really good ones, too!), and one shouldn’t forget about the podcasts that are actually live shows first and are later repackaged and redistributed over RSS feeds, like The Dollop, RISK!, and The Moth. (Of those, you could ask an inverse question: “Why record your live shows and distribute them as on-demand audio content?” Any one thing looks a little funny from a different angle.)

What’s driving the uptick? You can point to a few different things. Most straightforwardly, there is the core motivation of wanting to fashion out an additional revenue stream to not be completely dependent on advertising, to create some sort of ballast against volatilities to come. (Analytics shenanigans, agency chicanery, bumps in the economy, so on and so forth.) I think that incentive has been bubbling up to the forefront over the past few months, maybe. You can also point your finger at the bumper crop of new podcast festivals that have popped up over the past year-plus (NowHearThis, PodCon, WBEZ’s Podcast Passport, Third Coast’s The Fest, and the LA Podcast Festival, among so many others), which I imagine functions as an additional structural incentive for publishers to develop live performance capabilities. You can further consider the ongoing involvement of touring companies (like the Billions Corporation, which I interviewed back in July) and talent agencies (WME reps Crooked Media, by the way, among many other teams), which continue to bring live events expertise into the ecosystem that, in and of itself, is a pretty good motivator to keep playing within the channel.

Personally, I’m a big fan of publishers building out a live show presence. There are tons of benefits to glean. Physically communing with your audience is tight, as it deepens the relationship and sense of community. Visiting different cities, towns, and venues is super fun, if you don’t mind the travel, and it also provides good opportunities to peel off qualitative audience data. Merch can be sold. And also, some teams like doing live shows because they like doing live shows! Live shows are fun! Stage adrenaline is a drug! Damn!

The question, of course, is whether possible to make decent money off live shows. And I think the answer is yes, most definitely, provided you can pull off the logistics, manage the budget, and serve an actual experience people want to pay for. (You know, not unlike everything else in a goods-and-services-based economy.) A good example of a team that’s figured it out is Welcome to Night Vale, which has long used live shows as its primary revenue stream. (The team would only begin truly taking up advertising once it formed Night Vale Presents, its indie podcast label.) Now in its fourth year of touring, the show sells anywhere between 50,000 to 60,000 tickets a year, and they’ve staged over 200 shows across 16 countries in the past three years. You can figure the math out from there.

The Night Vale team has roots in the theater scene — creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are alums of the Neo-Futurists — and that expertise really shows in their live shows. (Slight non-sequitur: in what was probably a formative pre-Hot Pod podcast experience, I checked out a Night Vale show at New York’s Town Hall venue back in the summer of 2014, and man was I not prepared to stand amidst that much cosplay and teenage enthusiasm.) That brings me to another, earlier evoked, and perhaps bigger, point: producing a live show involves a whole other skillset that’s completely separate and apart from producing a podcast. Which is why, even as a fan of the entire idea of testing live shows as a diversifying business channel, I also think that it’s not a great fit for most publishers.

But the idea of a “good fit” between the two forms doesn’t always fall out the way you think it would. One doesn’t necessarily need to have theater or stage chops to effectively adapt a podcast to a live show. I went to a live Slate Political Gabfest show once, and I couldn’t quite get over how strange it felt to stand among a bunch of political and legal nerds — I’m guessing from the number of cardigans — giggling at David Plotz wisecracks. But at the same time, the effectiveness of the whole thing made a great deal of sense: much of podcast consumption involves forging an intimate connection with personalities and a conversation that’s taking place separate and apart from you. There is, then, a familiar appeal to live shows of coming close to celebrity. There is also the broader appeal of not being alone in having a beloved experience.

That said, I hear ya, Nevin: there’s something way weird about the prospect in concept. I mean, political reporters as celebrities? NPR political reporters as celebrities? Bizarro! Then again, if I was NPR, I’d totally lean into it. Look, if we’re living in a media environment where it’s all being summed up to fight between personalities, then yes, I’d lather makeup onto Scott Detrow and send him out on stage too. Happy viewing.

Bites:

  • Pop-Up Archive, the transcription platform that also runs the podcast search engine Audiosearch, will be winding down public operations on November 28, 2017. (Company email)
  • Dirty John, from the LA Times and Wondery, has reportedly garnered over 7 million downloads across six episodes since debuting at the top of the month. (CJR) The show is hosted on Art19. I’m personally pretty meh on the show, but hey, other critics seem to like it. All about that critical plurality.
  • True crime shows Sword and Scale and Up and Vanished are the next two podcasts headed to television. Between these guys and Lore, it seems like genre fare is having a field day. (Variety)
  • NPR’s monthly podcast audience hits 15.5 million unique users, and the organization typically garners 82 million monthly downloads. For reference, the organization uses Splunk to generate those numbers, and for further reference, Podrac pegs NPR’s unique U.S. monthly listeners at 13.3 million and global monthly streams/downloads at 99 million. (Press Release)
  • So, Spotify looked into the behavior of podcast listeners on its platform, and according to Fast Company, it found that “podcast listening peaked during the middle of the day. Interestingly, when they looked at weekday numbers versus the weekend, people listened to fewer podcasts on the weekend. In fact, the drop off is pretty significant, 45% to be exact.” Recall that these are listeners who choose to consume off Spotify, which is rather specific indeed. (Fast Company)

[photocredit]Photo of curtains by AnToonz used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Can sports turn the local podcast business into a green monster?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 137, published October 24, 2017.

WBUR wades into the daily podcast grind…with sports. So, one of the structural advantages of on-demand audio — and of the internet more broadly, with the way it collapses physical space — is how it allows publishers to identify, carve out, and super-serve distinct identity sets, which is a fancy way of saying how the medium excels at activating niches. (This is, of course, an exceptionally sharp blade that cuts in both directions.)

And so it’s to the credit of WBUR, one of Boston’s two public media institutions, that it moved to seize on both this natural advantage of the medium and the emerging genre of the daily podcast to serve a constituency well within their jurisdiction: the Boston sports fan, its own very specific species of human with its own dynamics, traditions, and diaspora.

Season Ticket, as the podcast is called, is off to a reasonable start. In its first two weeks, the show received approximately 200,000 downloads across its first 10 dispatches (a 20,000-per-episode average), which is a workable floor for what is essentially a show that’s not meant for everybody. I’m tempted to use the word “niche” here, but I’ve been told the word comes with the unfair connotation of smallness, which is, of course, an inaccurate notion. A book about Star Wars is “niche,” but Star Wars fans are legion.

Two things to watch with Season Ticket. The first is how much, and how fast, it will grow. Recall that the station’s first major podcast achievement, Modern Love, garnered 1.4 million downloads in its first month, and after four months the podcast was averaging 300,000 downloads a week. The second is how Season Ticket will find its place within the Boston sports fan media diet. This is, after all, a media consumer long super-served by New England’s sprawling network of sports media institutions, talk radio and otherwise, and WBUR’s task will be to tap into a completely new set of previously unserved fans — a younger generation, perhaps, or a diaspora in need — or test the limits of the hypothesis that the Boston sports fan’s hunger for coverage could very well be infinite.

Whatever WBUR finds out, they can definitely add another feather to their cap of respectable partnerships, which the station’s podcasting operations, led by the formidable Jessica Alpert, appears to be turning into a core program strategy. Season Ticket comes out of a collaboration with The Boston Globe — it’s hosted by Chris Gasper, a sports columnist for the paper — and a quick overview of WBUR’s listings on the Apple podcast directory show that Season Ticket is one of three such projects now out in the open. The other two are the aforementioned Modern Love, with The New York Times, and the upcoming Edge of Fame, with The Washington Post. More, I’m told, are on the way.

With this partnership-driven orientation, WBUR finds itself in the position where it could give Panoply — whose content strategy was once premised on such collaborations with media companies — a run for its money. But the challenge, as always, will be whether the station is able to draw talent to Boston as it grows its podcast team commensurate with demand…and, more importantly, whether it can retain them. It’s probably worth recalling, at this point, that Modern Love was originated by Lisa Tobin, who left WBUR last summer to be the executive producer of audio at The New York Times. Talent acquisition and retention is a problem for all in the industry, but one imagines it’s doubly so for any non-New York, non-Los Angeles shop at this point in time — even if Boston is a sub-four-hour train ride north from the self-declared Podcast Capital of the World. That’s a toughie.

Non sequitur, but this line of inquiry also pleasantly evokes the whole Amazon HQ2 dance, of which Boston is a participant. Man, what a weird thing to watch.

Cults! So, I’m keeping an eye on Heaven’s Gate, the 10-part documentary about the cult infamous for perpetrating the largest mass suicide ever to take place in the United States back in the nineties. The podcast, which launched last week, seems pretty spicy, and it happens to double as the sophomore effort for the creative team behind Missing Richard Simmons, the duo of Pineapple Street and Midroll. It’s worth pointing out, as I did with my Vulture writeup, that Midroll is more creatively involved this time around, with the company originating the show’s concept. (That wasn’t the case with Simmons. Dan Taberski, via First Look Media, had that honor. Taberski is listed in the Heaven’s Gate credits, though.)

But of course, the focus here is on Pineapple Street, who leads production. (Ann Heppermann, the cofounder of the Sarah Awards who is now on the company’s payroll, helms the rig.) The primary question here is whether Pineapple can go two-for-two with a hit feature. Which, I imagine, will help us attend to some other interesting questions: Was Missing Richard Simmons a fluke? Can Pineapple reliably stretch beyond its go-to move of extracting value from the star power of larger brands and celebrities, which appears to be its primary strategic angle? Aside from Missing Richard Simmons, the company’s portfolio is made up of shows built around The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, Lena Dunham, Janet Mock, Aminatou Sow, Matt Bellassai, Preet Bharara, and, obviously, Hillary Clinton. (Though, I suppose, you could argue that Missing Richard Simmons’ appeal was principally built on the draw of the titular celebrity, which cast a Godot-like shadow over the proceedings. In which case, there’s an argument to be made about Pineapple’s principal occupation being the interlocution of celebrity. It’s not a particularly strong argument, but it’s workable.)

Aaaanyway. You want to talk benchmarks? Let’s talk benchmarks. Figuring out a true number to beat is a little tough. Looking back at my notes, the clearest baseline for Missing Richard Simmons given was: “On March 28, a little over a month after the show first debuted, First Look Media told me that the podcast had been downloaded on average more than 1 million times a week since its release.” I guess that’ll have to serve our touchpoint for the first month.

The New York Times’ The Daily hits a milestone, outlines its future. Last week, the news industry analyst Ken Doctor pumped out two pieces on The Daily, one for Nieman Lab and one for TheStreet, and they give us a good snapshot of where the Times’ audio team currently sits and where it wants to go.

To begin with, Doctor reports that the morning news podcast has officially surpassed the 100 million download mark. As of the article’s pub date, October 17, The Daily had delivered 186 editions, which means the show has a 530,000~ download per episode average. Add to that two other key data points from Doctor’s piece in The Street — that The Daily was estimated to have hit 3.8 million unique visitors in August, and that the company is able to command ad rates comparable to pivot-inspiring levels of digital video — and you have an editorial product that stretches widely and draws deep dividends, both right now and in the days to come.

Doctor’s reporting also gives us a sense of NYT Audio’s immediate next steps: further expanding its headcount (now 16 full-time employees strong, seven of which hold production duties on The Daily according to Barbaro’s recent Longform interview), slapping on a digital engineering development arm to the team (!), stretching out The Daily to six editions per week, and rolling out more “extensions” of the program (presumably in the vein of The New Washington). He also notes two more things that I think are especially worth tracking: firstly, that the team is working on a “big narrative project” (isn’t everybody, though?), and secondly, that “within the next several weeks, Times readers will be able to access The Daily directly from their apps and browsers without using a separate podcast app.” This is incredibly significant, in that it illustrates a team meaningfully working to bypass the cumber of dedicated podcast apps to deliver its product to consumers. And it just so happens that, in doing so, the company will be able to keep those audiences within the universe of its primary mobile app, which puts them in a better position to spread the value generated by the podcast around the other aspects of the business. Further, it doesn’t take much to imagine the various audience and listening behavior analytics tools that will be layered on that built-in player, which will better aid the Times in carrying out the primary business goals of the podcast: to convert new subscribers, to retain existing subscribers, and to gather even more intelligence that will help them to do both those things.

I’m noodling on two more thoughts:

  • This quote provided by Sam Dolnick, the paper’s assistant editor and one of the long-running champions for the audio division, stands out to me: “This is the birth of a franchise for us that can live on and on in many different mediums for a long time.” A bold statement, though it does support any such suspicion that, when it comes to organizing NYT Audio, you have The Daily on one side, and everything that’s not The Daily on the other. Recall that the audio team still ships other non-Daily-related podcasts: Still Processing (with Pineapple Street), Modern Love (with WBUR), Popcast, and The Book Review — none of which were mentioned in either piece by Doctor. Which raises the question: What are the futures of these shows? And what is the future of non-Daily podcast programming? Will that aforementioned “big narrative project” be rolled out under The Daily banner, or not? Question marks!
  • I was chatting with a public-radio station operative at ONA a few weeks ago, who shared a sentiment that I’ve taken the liberty to brand on the back of my skull. To liberally paraphrase: Getting your first hit is one thing, what happens after is a whole other bag of bananas.

Three notes on measurement.

  • I have a mea culpa for you. Contrary to what I noted in last week’s issue, the Apple in-episode analytics was never pegged to the iOS 11 release, with the upgrade always being slated for a vague “later in the year” target date. That’s a note-taking fumble on my part, and I regret the error. The deployment timeline makes sense, even if I airballed: For there to be workable and reliable in-episode listening analytics, iOS 11 adoption needs to achieve critical mass, and that often takes some time following iOS rollouts. Again, my bad.
  • Keep a lookout: I’ve been getting sporadic reports from some publishers and independents that are experiencing rocky metrics readjustments well before this anticipated Apple change. The destabilizing shifts are thought to be tied to two other measurement changes, specifically: (1) Libsyn’s stats overhaul to become more compliant to IAB reporting standards, which took place in mid-September, and (2) Stitcher’s implementation of several changes — including a stats adjustment to fit IAB compliance, along with the presentation of “Front Page Impressions” as a separate metric — that kicked in earlier this month. For at least some publishers, the combination of the two have resulted in serious drops in performance data, though I have also heard of some upward revisions. I wasn’t able to pin down a specific change range that I’d be comfortable printing just yet, though. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.
  • I suspect we’re in the midst of a situation in which various podcast platforms are moving to adopt the IAB standard, but are doing so at different rates. While this will ultimately lead to a more cohesive and accountable ecosystem in the long run, the uneven adoptions have immediately cultivated some serious dysfunctions and pitfalls for individual publishers — particularly those that are interested in switching vendors. A publisher recently opined to me about the drastic performance data readjustments it experienced after migrating from Audioboom to Megaphone earlier this year, which fundamentally threw off its revenue projections. That’s bad enough, but the publisher felt that its ordeal was further exacerbated by a lack of vendor transparency. “I have a bunch of theories as to what happened, but the fact that podcast platforms are so cagey about their measurement standards drives me insane, and it impacts the work we do,” that publisher told me. Audioboom tells me that the platform adheres to the first version of IAB standards that was published last year — which is distinct from the newer edition that was circulated last month for public comment — but also notes that podcasts that move away from Audioboom’s platform will no longer have access to additional listenership facilitated through the company’s app. Nevertheless, the larger issue remains: For some, it’s still hard to tell what’s what, and that’s a big problem.

I imagine it would be prudent to anticipate more turbulence to come.

Career Spotlight. I love running this feature, mostly because it’s often a miracle that even a fraction of anything ever happens the way you hope it would. This week, I traded emails with Robin Amer, a Chicago-based journalist, editor, and audio documentarian who is in the midst of leading the development of a long-form investigative podcast, The City, that she sold to the USA Today Network over the summer. Amer’s on the up-and-up, and it’s great to catch her at this point in time.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: What’s going on right now?[/conl]

[conr]Robin Amer: I’m working to launch my podcast, The City, in 2018. It’s a long-form, investigative show that explores how our cities actually work — I’ve described it as being like The Wire, only true. By that I mean that every season will go deep into one city and one story. And every story will have a gritty sense of place, a memorable, multi-racial ensemble cast, and will be as revealing about the power struggles of all cities as it is about the particulars of the city where it’s set. Season 1 is set in Chicago, where I live. I can’t say much about the story right now except that when I started reporting it I thought, holy moly, this really is like The Wire, only true.

Because I’m the show’s executive producer as well as its the host, I’ve spent the last few months building the foundation for the show on business side as well as on the editorial side: building a whisper room studio in our offices in Chicago; hiring a team of journalists; working with my company’s product and sales teams to design our website and secure sponsorships; that kind of thing. I’m hoping to have most of my reporting and production team in place in the next few weeks, at which point we’ll dive back into the reporting for Season 1.[/conr]

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

[conr]Amer: In a narrow sense, I won the WNYC Podcast Accelerator competition in 2015, piloted the show with WNYC Studios last year, then sold the pilot to the USA Today Network in May. USATN was interested in the show because the company wants to be a player in the premium podcast space, and because my vision for the show — to go to a different city every season — fits perfectly with its overall editorial strategy. The company owns 109 local news outlets, and we’re already soliciting pitches from journalists in the network for stories for Season 2.

In a broader sense, I’ve been working up to this project for more than 15 years. I feel in love with public radio-style storytelling à la This American Life when I was in high school, then talked my way into an internship at NPR when I was 18. My senior thesis at Brown was an hour-long radio documentary that aired on several public radio stations in New England and that I premiered as a live performance in front of about 200 people.

That doesn’t mean it’s been a straight trajectory. I moved to Chicago in 2007 to work for Vocalo and then for WBEZ, and truly thought I’d be there forever, because it had always been my dream to work there, and because I loved Chicago, and Chicago was sort of a one-horse town when it came to opportunities in radio. But at a certain point I started to stagnate, and I wasn’t able to do the kind of work I wanted to do most, so I took a risk that not everyone understood, and left my stable job in journalism to go back to journalism school at Medill.

It seemed a little crazy at the time, even to me. But it was totally the right move. I got a full scholarship, and then a fellowship with Medill Watchdog, where I trained with Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Tulsky on how to be an investigative reporter. That opened a lot of doors for me. After I graduated, I freelanced for a year, which included a stint at the interactive audio walking tour company Detour, before I was hired to be the deputy editor at the alt-weekly Chicago Reader. Then I won the WNYC competition just a few weeks after I started at the Reader. (It was kind of a heady time!)[/conr]

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

[conr]Amer: The most important thing to me is the work, in whatever form it takes, and to keep making it. I think it’s really important to be adaptable and nimble, given both the incredible opportunities in media right now and the incredible instability in the media job market. It’s so boom and bust, feast and famine, that you have to figure out what really drives you, so that you can use that to guide you through various opportunities and challenges.

So for me, I’ve figured out that as a journalist and storyteller I’m incredibly inspired by place. Typically I come across some place that is strange or confusing or surprising or upsetting, and I want to figure out, in a very literal sense, what happened here? How did this place come to be the way it is? And what are the consequences of this place being the way it is for the people who live here?

But I’m very open to and excited by the idea of exploring these kinds of stories across a variety of media and in a variety of contexts. I look at someone like Alex Kotlowitz as a model here. He writes long-form magazine articles and books, produces radio stories, and is involved with making feature films like The Interrupters. But his work always has the unifying themes of poverty, race, and inequality (and often education and/or childhood), so regardless of the “container” it’s in, you can tell it’s his. I’m also newly inspired by Ira Glass right now, because he somehow manages to be deeply involved in the journalism coming out of TAL, Serial, S-Town, etc., while also managing and growing what is essentially a business empire.[/conr]

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

[conr]Amer: In one sense, I thought I wanted to do more or less what I’m doing now: make long-form audio stories. When I was younger I was in love with old-school, sound-rich European features by people like Peter Leonard Braun and Kaye Mortley, people whose work I had been introduced to by the Third Coast International Audio Festival. But it took me a while to articulate the kind of subject matter I was drawn to, and to realize that what I was doing was journalism, and that the ethics and tools and practices of journalism were an important component of my work. Fifteen years ago I would have self-identified as a radio producer or a radio documentary maker. Now I tend to self-identify as an investigative reporter. More recently it’s been a shock to see myself as somewhat entrepreneurial. I didn’t see that part coming.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • Radiotopia has kicked off its annual fundraiser. The campaign runs from October 23 to November 10, and its explicit goal is to increase its donor base to 20,000. (Campaign page)
  • ESPN has cancelled Barstool Van Talk, which the company had adapted for its ESPN2 channel from Barstool’s Pardon My Take podcast. Apparently, they got what they thought they were getting, but realized it wasn’t something they actually wanted, I guess? (Variety)
  • The Dinner Party Download has parted ways with American Public Media. The show was first launched as a podcast 10 years ago, and spent the last six being syndicated as a public radio weekend show. It will run its last broadcast on December 1. A sad development, but not to worry: details about the podcast future of hosts Brendan Francis Newnam and Rico Gagliano are “forthcoming.” Phew. (Announcement)
  • With a $100,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, the Charlotte, N.C. public radio station WFAE has “announced a plan to better connect with its audiences and develop fresh content using NPR One.” The station has hired Joni Deutsch, previously at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, as the on-demand producer to implement these efforts. It’s possible this might end up being the model of how most public radio stations will interface with the NPR One platform being positioned as “the (potential) future of public radio,” but who knows with these things really. (Press release)
  • Speaking of NPR One, the platform makes an appearance in this stellar article about news personalization by Adrienne LaFrance. (The Atlantic)
  • The CBC’s true crime podcast, Someone Knows Something, returns for a third season on November 7. It has reportedly garnered 32 million downloads across its first two seasons, which is made up of 27 dispatches. (Press release) As an aside, a cry for help.
  • The podcast adaptation of the L.A Times’ Dirty John helped drive 21,000 additional signups to the paper’s Essential California newsletter. (Digiday)
  • LeVar Burton is now legally cleared to use his catchphrase from Reading Rainbow for his podcast with Midroll. You don’t have to take my word for it — you can find the background for this weird but entertaining story here.

[photocredit]Photo of Fenway Park by John Sonderman used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Apple, podcasting’s dominant (and mostly benign) middleman, is rebooting how it delivers shows

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 122, published June 6, 2017.

I sunk a lot of hours this weekend trying to write a column on “Peak Podcasting,” following some inspiration from a tweet by the esteemed Lizzie O’Leary — which speaks to a broad feeling that I’ve been seeing a lot of — but I’m going to postpone that discussion to next week. For now, let’s talk WWDC, Gimlet, and JSON.

WWDC. The big Apple developer’s conference — which serves as a periodic hub for major product and upgrade announcements from the tech colossus — started in San Jose yesterday, and there are two big things you probably need to know.

(1) We’re getting a redesigned Podcasts app that’ll come with the announced iOS 11 update. Official details are scant at the moment, and while your mileage may vary with sourcing Reddit, there are a couple of screenshots of the new app floating about from this thread, which also hint at potential upcoming livestreaming tool support. Meanwhile, on the WWDC schedule, there’s an Apple Podcasts session due to take place on Friday, and it notes in the description: “iOS 11 upgrades the Apple Podcasts app to support to new feed structures for serialized shows.” From screenshots coming out of Twitter, it looks as if this in part means bundling by season, and providing a little more control over how episodes are presented to listeners over the feed. (It’s the small stuff that goes a really long way.)

As a sidenote, it’s notable that these changes seem to be particularly focused on better serving serialized shows, to the point it even shows up in the official language. Such shows — like Serial, S-Town, Missing Richard Simmons, and so on — do tend to be the medium’s breakout hits, though they are merely one of many show structures that exist in the space. Anyway, there’s probably a lot more to come on this; I’ll be on the lookout.

The iOS 11 update is scheduled to drop sometime this fall, alongside the new iPhone.

(2) You might already be aware of this, given that it was the closer: Apple finally unveiled its own foray into smart speakers, which comes in the form of a bulbous appliance rather awkwardly called the HomePod. (Apropos of nothing, it might time to rename this newsletter. I’m taking suggestions.)

It goes without saying that Apple finally breaking into the smart speaker category — and bringing with it the full body of its media ecosystem — is a big, chunky story with a lot to parse out. Now, I’m no technology journalist, but I will say that I’m deeply curious to see how Apple’s move here will add competition to the market currently dominated by the Amazon Echo. Some indicators suggest that Amazon has built a pretty far lead in this category with its line of fairly affordable smart speakers, and given the fact that Apple’s HomePod is priced at $349 to start (for reference, the Echo Dot goes for about $50), it seems as if Apple will be sliding into the market on the luxury end and will at least initially play more toward its moneyed base, which was more or less what it did with the smartphone. While it’s understandable to replicate that move, it does mean that whatever improvements the smart speaker brings to the podcast listening experience — and whatever listening gains for publishers and podcasters might come from it — we’re probably not going to be seeing much of a substantial broadening of the active listening base from a demographic perspective, at least not initially. Indeed, if anything, we’re probably going to see a deepening within the category of audiences already predisposed to podcasts.

Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to think through the big picture here: The higher aspirational register for this emerging set of products is the seeding of an audio-first computing experience, one of the alternative beachfronts for the “ambient computing” version of the consumer tech future highlighted in Walt Mossberg’s final column. To play this out further, the long-term structural value that this potential shift brings is one that ultimately liberates the growth trajectory of on-demand audio content from being principally tethered to the mobile device toward a trajectory that extends across whatever vessels audio-first computing is going to be channeled through in the future.

All right, that’s a whole lot of horizon-staring chin-stroking, so let’s kick it back a notch and talk present-day industry scuttlebutt. (Read the Nieman Lab writeup if you’re looking for more keynote takeaways for publishers.)

Gimlet makes a curious acquisition. In what is probably a sign of the times, Gimlet announced this week that it’s bringing on a new show from outside its trendy Gowanus walls: The Pitch, which is basically Shark Tank but a podcast. The show is made and hosted by Josh Muccio, a Florida-based entrepreneur.

The Pitch was first published in 2015, when Muccio developed the show in partnership with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sheel Mohnot. The show was able to carve out a niche audience during its initial run, and as the story goes, after the first season, Muccio decided to take it in a different direction, redeveloping the concept and raising a small production team around the enterprise that included, among others, Devon Taylor, a freelancer who worked on Radiotopia’s Millennial.

Muccio shopped the second season around different networks — a common practice these days, in case you weren’t aware — before Gimlet ultimately moved to pick it up. That happened earlier this year, and I’m told that the acquisition process took about three weeks after Gimlet officially expressed interest in the project. As part of the deal, Muccio joined the company full time in early March, and Taylor, who by the way cofounded the now defunct podcast review site The Timbre (R.I.P.), was brought in full time as well.

The Pitch marks the first independent podcast that Gimlet has absorbed into its ranks, though it isn’t the company’s first acquisition. (The network brought over Science Vs, along with host Wendy Zukerman, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year.) In many ways, it’s a bit of an unexpected addition for the nearly three-year-old company, which has thus far built a strong reputation off a portfolio of highly produced, narrative-driven programming — you know, the kind of stuff you’d lump into a pile with This American Life and 99% Invisible. The Pitch feels considerably different from the rest of Gimlet’s portfolio…though, if pressed, I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. I quite enjoy the podcast, but I have a bit of trouble seeing how it fits into the Gimlet brand and house sound. And as I dig deeper into my gut reaction to the news, I can’t quite tell whether my response says more about my prejudices about reality programming — which I have a distinct palate for, by the way, one that I keep separate from the rest of my entertainment diet — or my own conceptions of what the Gimlet house style is supposed to be.

Matt Lieber, president of Gimlet, appears to hold a broader definition of that house style than I do. “I think it’s pretty consistent with our strategy,” he said when we spoke by phone Monday. Gimlet shows, according to Lieber, are largely defined by, among other things, a sense of curiosity, high production quality, and a strong point of view — all things, he argues, that The Pitch shares. Plus, the ambition of the whole reality programming dimension, and how it mingles with these core Gimlet principles, is a big part of what drew Gimlet to the project. “It combines the best of reality TV — that tension and excitement — and the best of narrative storytelling,” Lieber said. “Reality has always been a category we’ve been intrigued by. If you think about it, the first season of StartUp had some of those qualities.”

That StartUp connection, I think, is pretty meaningful. One way of reading the company’s history is to see it as having built an initial core audience off a show, StartUp, that appeals to those who are drawn to stories about entrepreneurship and technology. From this position, The Pitch, then, is an expansion of that genre offering within Gimlet’s portfolio, one that deepens the available product range for the entrepreneurship-oriented audience — and, subsequently, its extractable value for advertisers. Think about the kinds of people who listen to StartUp and podcasts about entrepreneurship, and then think about the types of advertisers who value that set of ears, and then think about capitalism and the resulting CPM rate. (Speaking of which, I’d love to tie NPR’s How I Built This into this somehow.)

One more thing before I move on. I was curious as to why Muccio decided to move onto a network, why he eschewed independence. Here’s his response:

1. The #1 way people find out about podcasts is on other podcasts. So the right network presents an opportunity for audience growth that would take years to build as an independent.

2. Advertising. Some networks have horrible CPMs and are known for really bad ads. But Gimlet is not one of them. They’re one of the best in the biz. If not the best. We sold our own ads for The Pitch. It’s really REALLY hard to do well. This wasn’t an area I was willing to compromise so I’m lucky to be joining a network that is really crushing it on the advertising front. Bottom line? Ads on The Pitch are higher quality and more profitable.

3. Focus and specialization. I wore all the hats as an independent producer. I did pretty damn well considering, but still you can only be so good at any one thing when you have 50 other things you also need to be good at. Joining a network has allowed me to focus on building a great show, refining my skills as a host and building a team that can carry the vision of the show with me. Ultimately building something with a team of amazing people is more fulfilling to me than building something in a silo.

The Pitch debuts under new management on June 14. There will also be a crossover episode with the StartUp podcast on that day.

Side note. Deadline reported a new development on the upcoming Homecoming TV adaptation: Julia Roberts is currently in talks for the lead role, which was played by Catherine Keener in the podcast. The project looks like it’s still in its pretty early stages, so fans shouldn’t get too attached to the prospect of an adaptation just yet.

A directory, a list, a market. “Podcast discovery is broken,” goes the familiar critique, the opening gambit of most product pitches that hit my inbox. And it was as true two or three years ago as it is now — though as longtime readers might know, I’m wont to think of it mostly as a secondary issue, not one that’s fatally prohibitive to the long-term fate of the space. I imagine some will disagree. In any case, I still read every email that hits my inbox on the matter.

The latest of such gambits is something called PodSearch, and there is some reason to pay attention here. A project of Patty and Dave Newmark, proprietors of Newmark Advertising and longtime audio advertising operatives with strong relationships on the advertising side of the industry, PodSearch boasts a premise that’s so straightforward as to be blunt: It’s the Yellow Pages, but for podcasts.

There isn’t a ton about PodSearch that’s interesting from a design perspective, particularly on the business-to-consumer side. A lot of its touted features — search, personalization, top-show categorizations — are table stakes as far as digital products in 2017 are concerned, and there are some things about the interface that create an unnecessarily high level of friction for potential users, like requiring visitors to make an account before being to actually use the platform.

I see the theoretical value of the product for consumers, of course. Having a consolidated point of reference for the whole space that’s marginally more organized than Apple Podcasts (née iTunes) is nice, though perhaps not quite the drop of water in the desert it’s made out to be, and I’m partial to the view that more competition on the directory and search portal-level is always good for podcast discovery. However, execution matters more than ideas, as the old adage goes, and there’s a long road ahead for PodSearch to make a good first impression. (And second, and third, and fourteenth.)

That said, here are two things to consider:

(1) PodSearch has potential to create genuine value for advertisers. In researching this story, a few people brought up the way in which it might quietly solve a discovery problem of another kind: Advertisers and agencies, I’m told, currently have to do a fair bit of manual digging around to generate a list of podcasts (and their respective contact information for sponsorship inquiries) to potentially buy spots off, and so a directory that’s able to provide an easily digestible serving of the menu on offer, with the relevant contact information, would be useful for this community. And given the Newmarks’ expertise and history, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re able to create a decent market on the advertiser side of the equation.

(2) One way that PodSearch is interesting to me is how it can serve as a vessel to get the most utility out of search engines for its listed podcasts writ large. When I spoke with Dave last week, he spoke of a meaningful volume search queries for terms relating to podcasts on a general level — “What is a podcast?”, “How do I listen to one?”, and so on — and how there isn’t much incentive for individual publishers to aggressively capitalize on those generic paid search terms. And so, by assuming the position of a wholesale podcast directory, PodSearch is able to make those spends on behalf of publishers and extract value from those broad queries for its listing participants. There’s a lot of juice in this fruit, and I’m compelled to see if the utility here can be appropriately realized.

In sum, I really do think there’s a lot more value for PodSearch to pursue a more explicit business-to-business path than one that also tacks on a business-to-consumer dimension. Solving discovery for everyday users is a tough and deeply nuanced problem in 2017, and as far as digital media categories are concerned, we live in a world with high thresholds for user experience expectations — and it’s only going to get higher.

Two more things to mull over in your own assessment about the service:

  • There’s a cost associated with listing on the directory ($9.99 a month, which might feel steep for most that are already paying comparable amounts for hosting), and a small cost for advertisers to access the aforementioned point-of-contact information ($19.99 a year). I’m told that the costs are to qualify leads on both sides, and I imagine it also generates revenue for the platform to keep the lights on, which is fair.
  • The Newmarks are kicking off PodSearch with some major publisher partnerships already in the bag; in the press outreach email, I was informed that the company is fielding sales chiefs from National Public Media, Public Media Marketing, Midroll, and Panoply to talk on the record about the initiative. We’re talking institutional support here; let’s see how that shakes out.

Developments over at HowStuffWorks. Back in March, it was reported that Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, who founded the online curiosity Mental Floss back in 2001, were leaving the company to develop a new podcast for HowStuffWorks. That project is now public: it’s called Part Time Genius, and it appears to be some combination of game show and a piece of education media. In other words, the show sounds a lot like Stephen Dubner’s Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, and it fits into HowStuffWorks’ wheelhouse pretty neatly.

Part Time Genius will launch with four full episodes in the feed. That happens on June 7.

Meanwhile, HowStuffWorks has also relaunched its popular Stuff Your Mom Never Told You podcast, almost half a year after the show’s previous hosts, Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, left the show to launch their own independent media company, Unladylike Media. (You can find my story on that, which touches on questions of ownership and network arrangements, can be found here.) The new setup features Emilie Aries and Bridget Todd in the hosting seat, and they will be based in Washington, DC.

“Replacing a host or hosts is not easy, especially when you consider that so much of what makes podcasting great is the personal connection between listeners and the hosts,” wrote Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, through a PR rep about the transition. “We really wanted to take our time finding new hosts that could continue on with the show’s message, but we also wanted to make sure we were pushing ourselves to continue to evolve the show. We felt from the get-go that it was better to take our time finding the absolute best hosts for the show instead of rushing into this.”

Hoch added: “For any podcast, it does take some time to settle into a rhythm and build chemistry between co-hosts, producers and listeners. But this is also what makes podcasting so special — it’s analogous to finding a new friend. It builds over time.”

An uptick in support for a new podcast delivery format. I don’t spend a ton of time digging into the technical and infrastructural end of podcasts, and I’d like to be clear here that I only have a pedestrian understanding of the issues. But a recent string of announcements have caught my eye: Over the past week or so, a few third-party podcast apps, including Breaker, Fireside, and Cast, have all added support for the JSON Feed format. JSON is a data-interchange format, a way in which computers exchange information with one another, and JSON Feed is an RSS-like feed format built on top of it. The trend was written up by noted technology writer John Gruber at his site Daring Fireball, which is how I initially bumped into the story.

As far as I can tell, there’s some philosophical significance here among technologists who are developing tools for the podcast space. But I wanted to get a broad sense of what it means for those outside that category of people, and so I reached out to Leah Culver and Erik Michaels-Ober of Breaker to help explain some things to me.

The main takeaway? It’s largely a matter of efficiency, as the argument goes.

“JSON is generally more compact than XML,” the team wrote back. (XML is the format that provides the foundation for RSS which, as you might know, is currently the primary format of the podcast space.) “All things being equal, the JSON Feed could be transferred between two computers 27% faster and the transmission costs would be 27% lower. In a competitive marketplace, these types of cost savings are typically distributed in one or more of three ways: (1) returned to consumers, in the form of lower prices, (2), returned to shareholders, in the form of a dividend, and (3) reinvested in the business. Each of these has either direct or indirect benefits to consumers and podcasters. Essentially, the argument here is that efficiency is an end in itself. There no reason for computers to communicate more verbosely when they could communicate more concisely.”

They added: “Beyond efficiency, there are no new capabilities unlocked by JSON Feed. If all goes according to plan for JSON Feed, consumers and podcasters won’t notice that anything has changed—other than the podcast services they use have become cheaper or better, due to improved resource utilization.”

So, what’s listed here is actually an abbreviated version of a much longer Q&A with Michaels-Ober and Culver, which gets fairly wonky and technical. You can find the full discussion in this Google Doc.

Bites:

  • NPR’s Invisibilia returned for its third season last week, and this time around it boasts a unifying season-wide structure: playfully tethered to the idea of a “concept album,” this chunk of episodes will all revolve around the theme of concepts. (NPR)
  • Feral Audio, home of Harmontown, recently launched a comedy podcast focused entirely on stories and the happenings that go on in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz. It’s a curious take on the whole locally-minded media thread; we’ll see if they actually harvest anything interesting out of the conceit. (Feral Audio)
  • Kids Listen, the loose collective that advocates for children’s programming in the podcast space, has a website now. Watch the space for upcoming initiatives and roster expansions by the group. (Kids Listen)
  • AudioBoom recently commissioned a study with Edison Research on listener demographics. It’s worth checking out in full, but here’s a data point that caught my eye: Only 22 percent of respondents reported that they currently have mail-order subscriptions to companies like Blue Apron, Birchbox, and Barkbox. That’s a lot lower than I would ordinarily think. (LinkedIn)
  • Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has a podcast now…and, uh, I didn’t think much of it. (WBEZ)
  • Not directly podcast-related, but I loved reading this: “In well-mannered public radio, an airwaves war,” a story about WBUR and WGBH, which have struck up a fascinating coexistence in the public radio-friendly city of Boston. (The Boston Globe)

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is on a White House hit list for elimination

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 108, published February 21, 2017.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is now officially on a hit list of programs that the White House might eliminate, according to a New York Times article that led the site over the weekend, effectively pushing what was previously speculation — originated by a report from The Hill last month, which claimed that the Trump administration was considering privatizing the CPB — into an unambiguous news development.

I’ve highlighted this story a few times before, and while this specific development seems arguably incremental, it is nonetheless incredibly important to track given the depth of its consequences. Plus, there’s been a bunch of writing and side-stories that have emerged on this topic, which gives us enough material to piece together a clearer picture of what’s happening, why it matters, and why it bites.

Now, it should be noted that the public broadcasting system in general — and the CPB in specific, which serves as a key funding layer for NPR, PBS, and various public broadcasting stations across the country — have been consistent targets of cuts and criticism by conservatives. Personally, I’ve always been unclear on the precise reason for this; based on my reading, it appears to be some amalgamation of perceived liberal bias — a characterization that seems to be uttered with increasing synonymity with accountability media — and misuse of taxpayer dollars, never mind the public benefit and the paltry sums of savings such an elimination would entail. (For reference, CPB appropriations in recent years are around $445 million annually. And for further reference, government spending is projected to be $4 trillion this year.) This Currently Curious article from last November is a pretty good historical guide to the last time the GOP controlled the government, and over at Recode, friend-of-the-newsletter Dan Frommer pointed out how Richard Nixon once proposed halving CPB funding in 1969 — a few years after the CPB was formed. Despite those threats, federal support for the system has never seriously been compromised, and it is in this historical fact that fuels the beliefs of some that this simply won’t happen. But, as I’ve pointed out before, this is very much in an anomalous political environment, one where nothing seems off the table whether it’s a travel ban, or a wall previously thought to be a symbolic piece of campaign bravado, or a defunding of a federally supported public information system that improves the lives of millions.

If the elimination of federal support were to take place, the consequences for the public broadcasting system would be catastrophic. According to a CPB-commissioned study by Booz & Company, cited by Media Matters and Current’s reporting on the issue, “there is no substitute for federal support of public broadcasting, and that the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting.”

The defunding of public broadcasting will be an unpopular measure. A survey commissioned by PBS, which was reported by Current, found that the majority of American voters oppose the elimination of federal funding for public television. Specifically, 73 percent of those surveyed oppose the proposed measure — which breaks down to 83 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of independents, and 62 percent of Republicans — while 76 percent of respondents want funding levels to be maintained or increased. (The survey made no direct mentions of public radio, but I reckon the study serves as a reasonable proxy for the broader public broadcasting system. And for reference, the survey study was conducted by both Democratic and Republican polling teams.)

The Times report notes that the list of eliminated programs could still yet change, which means that the public broadcasting system still has a bit more time to continue its preparations for cuts and/or lobbying against it — which is something that they’ve already been doing.

This is probably the point of the article where I’m supposed to bring up an opposing, or contrarian, view on the matter. That perspective comes from the libertarian magazine Reason, where Jim Epstein, a former WNET producer, makes the survival-of-the-fittest argument: He argues that government funding actually hurts PBS and NPR, and that the elimination of federal support would shock the system out of its broadcast-oriented dependencies and incentives towards online distribution. Which, you know, is a view that I understand conceptually (even if it’s a little reductive and certainly overly Pollyanna-ish). But the evolution argument always strikes me as hollow and inhumane, as it never really fully reckons with and takes responsibility of the human cost of the resulting layoffs, the organizational complexity attached to structural transitions, and the simple fact that evolution necessarily yields losers — which is fine if we’re talking about markets distributing doorknobs, but totally sucks for markets distributing public goods like civic-oriented news, emergency signals, and supplemental forms of public education. Look, I’m as critical about the public broadcasting system’s predisposition for inertia and its many, many, many problems as the next guy, but I’d much rather see a transition to the future that takes place under conditions of strength and volition, not one under unnecessary duress and survival.

A weakened public broadcasting system is bad, bad, bad. It’s bad in ways you already know, and it’s bad in countless ways you don’t. A recent episode in West Virginia is illustrative of the latter category. When West Virginia Governor Jim Justice — a Democrat — proposed eliminating state support for West Virginia Public Broadcasting — ostensibly to close a $500 million budget gap (cutting WVPB support would save $4.5 million), but maybe for a whole other reason that NPR’s David Folkenflik hinted at on Twittera statement published by Susan C. Hogan, chair of the Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and Ted Armbrecht, chair of the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation, went over the various negative impacts of a debilitated WVPB: from the stuff you can probably guess, like the laying off of half their reporters and terminating a well-loved music program (long live Mountain Stage), to stuff you might not immediately consider, like how it compromises the operation of radio towers that facilitate the communication of first responders and how the loss of said music program would hurt tourism to the state. A loss in CPB support would incur the same effect for public broadcasting stations across the country, though the precise effects will vary based on their own specific configurations. Everyone will suffer in their own way, but everyone will suffer.

The West Virginia episode is also indicative of a whole other element to this story: It serves as an example of how the attacks on public broadcasting won’t just be coming from the White House; it can and will come from state leadership as well. The two developments are not unconnected — after all, the former sets the tone for the latter.

Yeah, sure, Epstein may well be right that pulling federal funding might lead to more efficient and innovative outcomes, but gains will be experienced unequally across all actors in the system — the bigger organizations in denser locations will likely thrive, while the smaller ones will likely not, and the system as a whole will almost certainly suffer. (See: the Internet and local newspapers.) And it is the integrity of the system, not any individual actor, that is so much more important at the end of the day. (See: modern democracy.)

And lest I forget this is a newsletter about podcasts, I’ll say this: A weaker public radio system is a weaker podcast ecosystem. Regardless of your feelings about public radio unfairly dominating the podcast narrative — and it has been pretty unfair, I’ll admit — it absolutely cannot be denied that the public radio contingent has represented a strong, validating pillar of an industry that often looks and feels like a chaotic mess. The term “wild west” has often been thrown about to describe the podcasting landscape, and while it is usually deployed with positive intent, the reality is that the whole thing largely resembles a “vast wasteland,” to crib from Newt Minow’s description of television back in 1961. (Hat tip to Joseph Lichterman’s spectacular historical account on Carnegie Commission on Educational Television’s 1967 report, which laid the foundation for the public broadcasting system we enjoy today.)

For all the crap you can understandably give public radio, it has undoubtedly done a lot to increase the podcast medium’s profile (increasing its appeal for both brand advertisers and audiences of all stripes), produced some great shows, and given us some truly great talent (all hail Anna Sale). I, for one, hope the system survives however this plays out.

Anyway, here’s Mr. Rogers.

Okay, that went way too long. On to the news.

iHeartRadio continues to burrow into the podcast space, signing a partnership with AudioBoom that will further expand the streaming audio company’s content catalog. This follows several podcast-related partnerships that iHeartradio has announced in recent months, including LibSyn, Art19, and NPR member stations.

As a reminder, the value proposition that iHeartRadio provides these podcast platform companies is theoretical access to the service’s reportedly large user base. iHeartRadio apparently has over 95 million registered users, but two caveats apply: (1) the exact number of monthly active users — the key metric — is still unclear, and (2) it remains to be seen whether partner podcasts can meaningfully benefit from the iHeartRadio user base. As any public radio member station that has attempted to convert broadcast listeners to podcast listeners can tell you (see the Knight Foundation’s recent podcast report, Point 1), conversion aspirations aren’t all that straightforward.

Related: Audioboom also announced a branded content partnership with SpikeTV to produce a discussion podcast companion for the latter’s upcoming six-part true crime series, Time: The Kalief Browder Story.

What’s up with Barstool Sports? I’ve previously not paid much attention to the company — which now sports several podcasts peppering the iTunes charts — and, frankly, I don’t know very much about it beyond the headlines off the trades: its 2016 acquisition by the Chernin Group, its aggressively male character, its largely sports-oriented content focus, its various controversies of the misogynist variety. I thought last week’s Digiday Podcast, which featured an interview with the company’s CEO Erika Nardini, serves as a helpful primer, and if you’re curious and confused about them as I was, do check it out.

Anyway, a press release hit my inbox last week that touted the company as “dominating” the podcast game, making the argument by listing the iTunes chart positions currently occupied by the company’s various podcasts. When asked, the marketing firm that distributed the release claims that the network enjoys 22 million downloads a month across all shows (by my count, it has 18 in the market at the moment).

The number strikes me as conspicuously high, and I’ve requested for more specific details on both downloads and the context of those numbers. (I haven’t heard back yet.) At the moment, it’s not immediately clear where the network hosts its shows — and therefore, how it counts its downloads — and whether it abides by the measurement standardization practices increasingly being adopted by the rest of the industry. For reference: If the numbers are precise and appropriate for actual apple-to-apple comparisons, that would mean the network effectively stacks up against HowStuffWorks, WNYC Studios, and This American Life/Serial as measured by Podtrac, which doesn’t measure the Barstool Sports group of podcasts.

Is that plausible? Sure. Is that the case? Let’s find out. I’ll let you know when I hear back.

Fusion is set to debut its first narrative show next month, Digiday reports. The show, titled Containers, will be hosted by editor-at-large Alexis Madrigal, and it will utilize an Oakland seaport as a prism through which various key issues like crime and immigration will be discussed. In other words, it’s The Wire season 2, but for non-fiction storytelling podcasts.

Note the mention of Panoply in the article, which is described to have “won out against a field of competitors for Fusion’s business.” I wonder who else was bidding?

Anyway, as the report establishes, Containers will be the Fusion Media Group’s first stab at a podcast that goes beyond the conversational gabfest-format that make up its current audio offerings, all of which emerge from the recently acquired Gizmodo Media Group (née Gawker). Interestingly enough, the group had dabbled with story-driven, narrative podcasts before: back in the Gawker era, Gizmodo once distributed Meanwhile in the Future, the original iteration of Flash Forward, which creator Rose Eveleth now operates independently.

Slate names June Thomas as new managing producer of podcasts, as Thomas announced on social media last week. She is a long-time member of the Slate family, serving as a culture critic for the site and the editor of Outward, its LGBTQ section, and a regular across the Slate podcast universe: she’s a host on Slate’s Double X podcast with Hanna Rosin and Noreen Malone, and a frequent guest on the Slate Culture Gabfest.

The announcement came a few days after news of Slate laying off staffers broke last week. And a bit more detail on that front: According to this pretty brutal CJR article, among those let go was Mike Vuolo, a senior producer with the company and WNYC alum who also, up until last summer, cohosted the network’s language podcast, Lexicon Valley, with On The Media’s Bob Garfield.

Thomas starts her new role on February 27.

Gimlet loses a producer to The New York Times: Larissa Anderson, who served as a senior producer on Undone, will now work on developing and running narrative podcasts at the Gray Lady. Her title there is “editor and senior audio producer.” And in case you’re tracing the timeline: Gimlet announced that it wasn’t renewing Undone for a second season in mid-January.

Signaling. One of the more technical questions that’s interesting (to me, anyway) coming out of the recent discussions over “fake news” — which is really a discussion about trust, credibility, and the decentralization of information and power — is one that distinctly strikes me as a problem of design: In the enterprise of cultivating trust, how do you convey positional context, whether an editorial piece has opinion-based elements baked in or whether it’s meant to be journalistically or somewhere in between, in a way that’s clear and efficient? (Provided that making such things clear is important to you, of course.)

It’s a hard enough question to answer on the web, print, television, or within the endless stream of social media feeds, but it seems a lot trickier within the current culture surrounding audio content, given its primary value proposition of being a unique source of intimacy by way of authenticity.

The problem was raised very briefly at a Yale event last week that featured Scott Blumenthal, deputy editor at The New York Times’ interactive news desk. (One of the benefits of living in New Haven, a university city: access to free student events — and free snacks!) An attendee had brought up The Daily, the Times’ recently launched daily morning news audio brief, and raised concerns over whether the podcast’s breezy conversational nature runs the risk of coming off as editorializing. I don’t personally share this interpretation of the brief, but I can definitely see the concern: host Michael Barbaro is certainly chatty, and I suppose we somewhat find ourselves now living in a cultural environment that increasingly views personality as a direct function of ideology. (Maybe that’s always been the case, and it’s only being recognized as a problem now.)

So, how do you convey your context? I’ll be thinking this through for a while, and I’ve been recalling some approaches to this problem that I’ve seen in the past. Sometimes it’s through the use of an explicit disclaimer delivered through scripting; an example of this can be found in With Her, that Hillary Clinton podcast, in which host Max Linsky deliberately establishes the fact he isn’t operating as a journalist — thus contextualizing the show as, essentially, a piece of political advertising. Sometimes it’s done purely through the scripting and tone of the show; Slate’s The Gist is a good example of a news-oriented podcast that largely exists as an op-ed column, while the oft-criticized “public radio voice” pervading public media newscasts is constantly described as a tool to cultivate a sense of journalistic neutrality. And sometimes it’s just a matter of being clear and unified with the branding, as with the conservative Ricochet podcasts. All these approaches are difficult to execute in and of themselves, but I imagine it’s exponentially more difficult to convey differences in context within individual episodes — say, when you switch from a reported segment to an opinion segment.

This problem seems to disproportionately trouble journalistic podcasts above all, which makes sense, as those shows are the ones under the greatest scrutiny and possess the highest burden of responsibility. And it seems to me that the problem most vibrantly expresses itself when straight-news programs seek to derive the benefits of “authenticity” and “intimacy” associated with the on-demand audio medium that more personality-driven programs seem to enjoy without much cost. Then again, I imagine the latter experiences similar difficulties if it aspires to benefit from emulating the former.

I’m curious to hear what y’all think. Hit me up.

Anyway, before I forget: The Daily is so, so good, and so smart in its use of music and tone, and its short length.

Bites:

  • Overcast, Marco Arment’s podcast app favored by the technology/podcast intelligentsia, released a major update yesterday that includes design improvements — and the introduction of what can possibly be a visual ad network for podcasts. (Overcast)
  • Hmm. “Trump’s FCC chief wants it to be easier to listen to free FM radio on your smartphone.” (Recode)
  • Looks like Vice, true to form, is trying something weird: the VICE Magazine Podcast, which drops once a month. (Vice)
  • Spotify’s first original podcast has a trailer up: Showstopper, a show that looks back at important moments in television. It’s hosted by Fader editor-in-chief Naomi Zeichner.

[photocredit]Photo of a 2011 protest in favor of continued CPB funding by Phil Roeder used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Hot Pod: Should Apple become a more useful middleman for the podcast industry — and if so, how?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-seven, published November 29, 2016.

Ken Doctor on the role Apple should play. The media analyst made an appearance on the latest episode of The Wolf Den, Midroll’s pretty handy content marketing podcast-slash-guide to the industry, to discuss his spectacular series on the podcasting boom that recently ran on Nieman Lab.

Of particular note is his take on Apple, which came up at around the 16:45 mark:

What I would like to see is [Apple] not get into the middle of things where they actually overwhelm all the smaller companies that are in it…The money looks like it’s going to be mainly advertising and less listener payment, and that’s not a field they’re very good at. They’ve proven that they’re not a very good advertising company. And that’s a good reason for them not to get into it: [there’s] not a lot of money in it right now, and they’d need big hits…

If their role could be the providing of information and data in a Switzerland-kind of way for the industry, given that 60 percent or so of all the listening comes through Apple devices, and maybe get paid a little to do that — but to do that in a way that is non-competitive — that might be their best role for the industry. It will support their core businesses, which is selling hardware and software, but not put them in direct competition and snuff out the creativity and imagination that’s in the industry.

Doctor’s position here — for Apple to become more involved as an information and data provider, and not as some sort of involved content distributor — is more or less the position favored by most in the industry at this point in time. It’s a highly specific vision of Apple’s role in the podcast space that requires a delicate balance, one that was largely reflected in the agitation aggregately portrayed in that semi-controversial New York Times article back in May. (A controversy, by the way, that now seems driven by fears that drawing attention to the problem would trigger an unpredictable action from Apple, and not based on any vision of the future articulated by anybody interviewed.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I completely second Doctor’s position here, both for the positives — yes, it would be very nice for all of us to get better access to actionable data that could yield greater audience insight (preferably in such a way that isn’t particularly invasive) and foster greater intangible confidence in the medium from the advertising community — as well as for the severity of its negatives.

The darkest timeline. Now, I’m not an Apple kremlinologist — I’ll leave that to the vast blog ecosystem dedicated to Apple coverage — and so I can’t, of course, personally predict with any confidence how the company is thinking about its podcast strategy (or even whether it’s thinking about it with any seriousness at all). My gut reaction, and I know I’m not the only person who suspects this, is that podcast money is still very much chump change, and that any attempt to step in as a layer that takes off a percentage of the entire space would still amount to what is essentially a rounding error for the company. (Recall that the current valuation of the podcast industry’s ad spend is only so much — for 2016, ZenithOptimedia projected $35.1 million back in March, while others have so far estimated it to be as high as $167 million — while digital music revenue is pegged to be about $2.66 billion this year, radio ad spend was $17.5 billion in 2015, and Apple’s App Store revenue was estimated to be about $6.4 billion in 2015.)

However, if I were to imagine a possible world in which they’d try to do something at this specific point in time, I’d figure that the guiding incentive would not be to capitalize on peeling a layer off revenues in the space as it is, but to instead become an underlying condition of how future business is conducted in the space. Which is to say that, in such a scenario, Apple would want to position itself in a way that’s similar to how, say, Art19 or Panoply would want their respective platforms to be the de facto podcast hosting solution, or how Stripe is becoming increasingly synonymous with internet payments.

What does that mean, precisely? Whatever it is, it’ll probably feature the company offering podcasters — and in particular, big podcast publishers, who are incentivized to persist in the long term — solutions, expertise, and/or access to something those podcasters themselves do not have and experience high barriers of entry to obtain. As Doctor noted, that probably isn’t going to be ad sales, since the company has historically proven itself to not be great at that. What does that leave us with? Audience development? Maybe payments? And where does that leave Apple: a strategy of exclusives, like their pursuits with Apple Music, or maybe direct payment/patronage tools, coopting the role that Patreon would play?

Anyway, that’s what I’m batting around in my head. In any case, at this point I’ll say that if Apple were ever to make a move, I suspect the very first people outside of Cupertino to find out are probably the bigger podcast publishers, so keep an eye on them. In the meantime, consider investing in building out a promotion strategy and infrastructure where iTunes — and maybe even a network — isn’t at the center, but one channel of many. Hey, it can be done. I mean, look at Chapo Trap House. (I guess?)

Two more things from the Ken Doctor interview. Do check out that Wolf Den episode — the full conversation is really, really good — but there are two additional topics that you should keep in mind:

1. On the potential of FCC regulation over podcasts (something that the medium has, up until this point, not experienced), which Doctor discusses at about the 33:00 mark:

I think there will probably be efforts, and now, given different kinds of politicization, there may be more efforts. What I’ve seen over 20 years is that essentially the law and regulatory practice has been absolutely flummoxed by digital media…The FCC and the FTC have not figured out how to deal with this. Even antitrust law has not figured out how to deal with it. I don’t think that’s going to change.

I would hope that your industry…will take that lead and make your own rules that are ethical and that are transparent to the public. And to get ahead of it, and try to avoid government regulation which is as likely to be misguided as it is to be well-guided.

2. The role podcasts can play for local media and local news was also discussed, and you can hear that chunk of the discussion at around the 38:30 mark.

“Efficiency trumps all things, in general,” said Erik Diehn, CEO of Midroll, when we spoke over the phone recently. “There are many more advertisers in the space relative to a few years ago, and they’re increasingly looking for scale. If you’re an advertiser, you can cobble a few shows together, or you can choose instead to buy one big show…That’s just where we’re at. It’s the same thing on YouTube. Ditto a few years ago with blogs. We’re at a point of bifurcation: You’re going to see more larger shows absorbing a lot more dollars…including brand dollars, that weren’t there before.”

Diehn notes that there is a very specific form of exception to this, pointing to the podcast Spilled Milk as a case study. “They aren’t huge, but they sell out because they’ve been around for a while, they have a good audience, and they do food,” he explains. “Some people will buy even at that smaller scale. If you’re going to be a commercially successful podcast at this point, you got to have a differentiated or notable product.”

I spoke with Diehn, by the way, to balance out the interviews I did for last week’s item on independent podcasts.

Digiday has a pretty interesting snapshot on the U.K. digital audio landscape, drawing from a report by U.K.-based Radio Joint Audience Research that groups together streaming platforms, digital radio, and podcasts. Expected findings apply: a preference by younger demographics, a steady growth rate (a reported double-digit growth every six months), and persisting fragmentation when it comes to centralized measurement.

As with my own reporting, the article notes that there exists a general sense that digital audio in the U.K. still “lags” behind the U.S. — though I should note that, among podcast companies specifically, there are a few entities putting in a fair bit of effort developing a connected presence on both fronts. (See: Audioboom and Acast’s long-running incursion into the U.S., Panoply’s recently-established outpost in the U.K..)

Anyway, check out the Digiday article in full. There’s some additional findings on specific company strategies that are also pretty cool.

An unexpected pleasure. I was catching up on Life After, GE Podcast Theater’s followup to The Message, over the weekend, and I was struck by just how positively I reacted to the show’s complete lack of advertising breaks. No preroll, no midroll, no clunky sponsorship messaging — there were simply no disruptions in the show’s contiguous experience that added onto the suspension of disbelief already being demanded by the story. The show felt more immersive as a result, washing over my earballs so much more smoothly. Heck, I swear it made me like the show more than I naturally would have, and frankly, I can’t tell if the season is any good or whether I’m just happy there are no ads. (For what it’s worth, I quite like the season.)

And yes, the irony of Life After being one gigantic piece of advertising isn’t lost on me.

Also not lost on me: the fact that my overwhelmingly positive response says a whole lot more about the state of normal podcasts than it does about branded podcasts as a, um, thing (genre?). Advertising is a tax, the price we pay for a piece of media that we didn’t pay for out of our pockets. The role of publishers, by and large, is to mitigate the burden of that tax as it is suffered by audiences; in an ideal world, publishers could even turn that tax into an additional value.

The experience of Life After brings into acute focus just how much that tax has accumulated over the past year, and just how much they’ve congealed into fatigue. (For me, at least.) Granted, I’m an edge case — I spend inhumane chunks of my days consuming podcasts, and perhaps it was only a matter of time that I’d grow blind (deaf?) to advertising in my exorbitantly high levels of podcast consumption. But I’m struck, at this moment, by the extent to which I’ve been bearing with podcast ads — and I’m saying this as a person who actually believes in advertising. The flipside to this is just how little podcast advertising I actually notice, how rarely I encounter host-reads that fill me with any memorable feelings at all.

There is, of course, a limit to which my personal experience says anything about everything else, but all of this does make me wonder how, in the midst of an expanding inflow of advertising money, the podcast industry en masse is readying itself to figure out how to preserve the medium’s intimacy — to capitalize on the fresh start it offers for digital media — while scaling up its advertising infrastructure to accommodate that money.

For those keeping close watch on Audible Channels: The number of Amazon Prime members is now estimated to be 49.5 million across the US, up 23 percent from last year, according to a report by financial services firm Cowen & Co., as cited by Barron’s.

Recall that Audible’s parent company Amazon started bundling Channels content with its Prime membership program back in September. Previously, Channels was only available to paying Audible subscribers and as a standalone paid subscription feature, priced at $4.96 per month or $60 per year. Also recall the larger strategy for Amazon with Channels: Its existence theoretically increases the value of Prime and Audible memberships, thus increasing the friction for cancellation for current members and increasing the pull for new subscribers. That allows for a programming strategy that favors hyper-targeting, which means that Audible doesn’t have to always program for the broadest possible audience. This should be nothing new for longtime Hot Pod readers, but I’d going to keep hammering on it because I believe it’s key to reading that company.

Bites:

  • Hot Pod reader Charles Wiltgen has made pretty handy tool: the Podcast Validator, which helps assess whether your RSS feed is good to go. A little bit goes a long way for that additional peace of mind. (Podbase)
  • The Providence Journal reviews Gimlet’s Crimetown, whose first season focuses on organized crime in Providence. An entertaining artifact. (The Providence Journal)
  • If you’re keeping an eye on what comes next for the CBC’s role in Canada, do yourself a favor and check out the latest episode of Canadaland. (Canadaland)
  • “A Podcast of Their Own for Women in Music.” (The Atlantic)
  • “On the Need for Queer Podcasts.” (LA Review of Books)
  • Profile on Revolver’s Wrongful Conviction podcast. (New York)
  • This week in Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: “Now even your headphones can spy on you.” (Wired)
  • Not directly podcast-related, but I’m reading: “How Silicon Valley Passed on Conservative Media” (The Information)

This shortened version of Hot Pod has been adapted for Nieman Lab, where it appears each Tuesday. You can subscribe to the full newsletter here. You can also support Hot Pod by becoming a member, which gets you more news, deeper analysis, and exclusive interviews; more information on the website.

Hot Pod: Is there an opening for budding U.K. podcast businesses to challenge the BBC?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety, published October 4, 2016.

Night Vale Presents welcomes a new show to the podcast universe: The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air), an audio drama that will “tell the story of a mysteriously impossible variety show broadcast from the top of the Eiffel Tower”…well, let’s just say it’s appropriately strange, and exactly what you’d expect from the Night Vale team. The show is written by musician Julian Koster of the band Neutral Milk Hotel, and will feature a really remarkable lineup of voice talent that ranges from Mandy Patinkin to Charlie Day and Mary Elizabeth Ellis of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame.

Orbiting Human Circus is the third project to be released under the Night Vale Presents label since its formation in January, after Within the Wires and Alice Isn’t Dead. The show also has the distinction of being the network’s first “independently produced” podcast, meaning that it’s the first project being distributed by the Night Vale Presents team that does not creatively involve Night Vale creators Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink. (Cranor cowrote Within the Wires, while Fink wrote Alice Isn’t Dead. Both write Welcome to Night Vale.)

“Julian and his artistic team built the world entirely on their own and approached us with the season one concept and the first three episodes already produced,” Cranor told me when I reached out last week. “We saw a group of artists making music and theater, and they had devised this brilliant digital audio show, and we wanted to provide them with a financial base and audience base to get this work off the ground.”

Authentic, Podtrac’s advertising arm, is handling sales for the show, as they are for the rest of the Night Vale Present portfolio (including the flagship Welcome to Night Vale).

I’ve come to view Night Vale Presents as conceptually equivalent to an indie label and, to some extent, a book publishing imprint — with a strong curatorial commitment to a very specific sensibility, closer in spirit to something like Radiotopia but in structural opposition to more conventional, scale-oriented podcast network like Panoply. (That reminds me: I’ve got to come up with a different vocabulary for these companies; the specificities of their details have accumulated enough to become strong differentiators.) Which is really, really interesting given that, for the past year or so, the podcast industry has come to feel like a protracted land-grabbing conflict perpetrated by entities looking to become the foundational arbiter of economic activity in the space. And I have, in recent weeks, come to suspect that much of that fight has already completed its course.

That leaves us, of course, with the question of what frontiers are left for entrepreneurial creators looking to stretch out their arms in this ecosystem. The enterprise of figuring out how to build a fulfilling business in the post-scale-oriented-network stage of this creative economy is certainly a hard one, but I think Night Vale Presents is doing just that — and providing us with a template of one way forward.

“We have a couple of other artists with imaginative ideas/concepts and we are using our experience to help these people enter the world of podcasting,” Cranor wrote when I asked about what’s down the pipeline. “Joseph and I reaching out to provide whatever resources we can to help initiate these good ideas, whether that is professional support, financial support, or just cheerleading. We want more fiction podcasts, more diverse podcasts, more original podcasts.”

Season one of Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) premieres on October 12, with new episodes dropping every other Wednesday. The first season will run for nine episodes. The podcast will also involve a live tour component, which will start this fall.

Spotify in “advanced talks” to buy SoundCloud, according to the Financial Times. Do keep an eye on this, given that the latter has long served as a solid podcast hosting platform option for newcomers — and even a few networks — and given the former’s gradual push into becoming a worthwhile podcast distributor. (Worth noting: I’ve been hearing from some publishers that their Spotify listenership appears to be growing steadily over time, though not a rate that particularly pops.)

I’m tempted to speculate how this acquisition may impact podcast publishers hosting on SoundCloud or publishers looking to distribute through Spotify — it remains a closed garden — but I imagine that will all be contingent on the details of whatever deal may emerge, should there be one.

Some notes on the U.K. I was curious, like most, when I heard that Panoply was setting up shop in the U.K. When I last wrote about the podcast scene in that region, I was left with the impression that building out an on-demand audio business there would be a tremendously difficult proposition, particularly given the outsized role that the BBC plays in the local non-music audio economy, presumably leaving little oxygen for potential competitors.

Panoply, I figured, is in for a tough fight. But I wondered what someone who has had experience building out a podcast business in the U.K. would think, and so I reached out to Stuart Last, general manager and SVP of audioBoom, a British on-demand audio company that has, in recent years, made inroads in the U.S. His extensive reply:

The podcast market [in the U.K.] is really in its infancy — there’s been an increasing number of independent podcasts, but a noticeable lack of podcast networks compared to the U.S., so the first stage of consolidation has not really begun. Also, the ad sales market is not hugely established yet, both in the money agencies and brands are dedicating to podcasting, and how sellers are selling.

The one thing the BBC’s dominance of the audio space has created is a really competitive independent production industry. By law, the BBC has to buy a large percentage of its radio programs from the independent sector — which means there’s creative, and well established production companies ready to develop and produce fantastic audio products. So I think the main challenge for them will be how to monetize effectively. But their key opportunity is all about content and being able to tap into the independent production industry for great ideas.

I think it’s great that a third major player is launching there — obviously it’s more competition for ourselves and Acast, but because the industry is so in its infancy, it’s a chance for all three companies to shape what podcasting becomes in the U.K.

Interestingly, Last also wanted to clarify the current state of audioBoom for me: “I know we’re also seen as a British company,” he wrote. “We are — that’s where the company was founded and where our HQ is based — but the majority of global business is out of the U.S and we’re growing here at 10 percent a month.” Last further notes his company’s position as a dynamic ad-insertion platform competitor to Art19 and Acast (“and at much bigger scale,” he adds; “over 50 million downloads per month are coming via audioBoom”) and, simultaneously, a podcast advertising sales operation. It currently reps Undisclosed, Astonishing Legends, and the NBC Sports podcast network, among others.

Meanwhile, in Australia. The great continent down under — sorry folks, I couldn’t find a less cliched nickname — enjoyed its inaugural OzPod conference last week, with WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi presenting the keynote. The conference, which was organized by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), is the second relatively high-profile conference in the country after the more indie-oriented Audiocraft that took place in March. Anyway, I’d like to draw your attention something that the ABC published ahead of the festivities: an audience research report that covers Australian podcast listenership, put together by the organization’s audience insights team.

The report drew from a sample of 1,145 surveys, and it should be noted that the majority of respondents had been listening to podcasts for more than five years. (Which, in my mind, presents a pretty engaged — and therefore somewhat irregular — respondent pool, so keep that in mind when you look through the findings.)

You can view the full report here, but here are the points that stood out to me:

  • Australian podcast consumers listen to an average of 5.5 podcasts per week. The report didn’t make it particularly clear, but I believe “podcasts” is equivalent to “podcast episodes” here. The report also found that nearly 1 in 5 respondents listen up to 11 podcasts per week.
  • The most common location where respondents consume podcasts is apparently at home, with 76 percent reporting that behavior.
  • This is interesting: 36 percent of respondents indicated that they are listening to more podcasts compared to previous year. The report further noted that this is a net 14 percent increase compared to the previous year.
  • Finally, nearly 1 in 2 discover new podcasts by word of mouth and listening to the radio or television.

Cool. And in case you were wondering: ABC Radio is the largest podcast publisher in the country, reporting about 135 million overall downloads and streams in 2015. The company is projected to enjoy about 160 million overall downloads in 2016.

A writer’s room? Parcast is a fairly new podcast network that has taken what’s becoming a conventional route to building out its initial audience base: leaning hard into true crime. (Indeed, it’s a strategy so compelling that even some city newspapers, like the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, have adopted it…with moderate success, looking at the iTunes charts.) Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories is a dramatic, reenactment-heavy take on the genre, and it comes off as a bit of campy mix between Nightline and an old-timey radio drama. I’m told it drew 1.8 million “listens” in its first three months.

Max Cutler, a cofounder of Parcast, tells me that the company is set up “like an old-time movie studio,” in that production is built around a rotating pool of screenwriters and voice actors, with different combinations working on a given episode. It’s an intriguing way of structuring your production process, especially if you can make the economics of running a team like that work, and I think it’s a model that other shops should try out in the future — particularly the drama-inclined.

Anyway, the network launched its second show, the salaciously-named Remarkable Lives, Tragic Deaths, in early August, and Cutler notes that they intend to launch five to seven more shows over the next year.

Recognition. Something’s wrong, argues Johanna Zorn and the Third Coast Festival team in a manifesto published on Medium last Monday. It’s time for the Fall Arts Previews — an annual tradition of sorts where publications across the print and digital spectrum draw attention to upcoming artistic and creative events — but there remains, quite glaringly, an absence of radio and podcast-related coverage. Zorn & Co. further characterize this gap as an extension of a greater lack of critical recognition for the medium — a long running state of affairs, to be sure, but one that’s grown increasingly incongruous given the medium’s recent burst in attention and popularity. “We seek recognition of the Radio/Podcasting genre through thoughtful reviews, criticism, and a deeper examination of styles and trends,” the manifesto concludes. “We know you can hear us.”

As you can imagine, I’m sympathetic to the issue that Zorn & Co. raise here, but reading the manifesto, I found myself wondering: What, exactly, does “recognition” mean here?

When I spoke to the Third Coast team last week, Zorn told me: “It’s like we’re fighting for equality here…We talk about novels, dance, and movies, but we don’t talk about radio and it doesn’t feel like it’s being treated as art.” Maya Goldberg-Safir, the team’s social media strategist, presented a more practical line of argument: “People are still using The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune for event listings. I think those outlets are crucial for us to get visibility as an art form that we deserve at this point.”

A few things here:

1. It’s worth decoupling those two arguments. So, Goldberg-Safir’s argument for greater discoverability — which can yield material economic impact — really resonates with me, but I find Zorn’s appeal for greater cultural positioning much trickier. In my mind, it conveys a sense that the team is appealing to a stable of elite cultural gatekeepers to open their doors and let them in. I’m generally skeptical of any impulse that ties recognition to an acceptance from an elite class, although I understand that feeling.

2. I generally believe in cultivating radio/podcast criticism in order to realize their functional utility as a consumer guide of sorts and to increase their influence over the economic outcomes of podcast projects. To that end, I’m hopeful about the way things are shaping out: Podcast recommendation lists appear to be more common these days, there’s a growing class of young and independent online operatives taking up the task (like the Bello Collective and Podcasts in Color), and there’s been a slow but steady rise in writeups within strong publications (a very recent example: The New York Times’ recent profile of You Must Remember This’ Karina Longworth in the Style section, mere weeks after a similar writeup of The West Wing Weekly in the Arts section.)

3. I also happen to absolutely love consuming criticism as a standalone editorial product. (Hell, I love producing it too.) And as an editorial product, criticism has been subject to all the structural brouhahas that the rest of the media industry is suffering through, including the bifurcation into commodifying plays for scale and narrowing plays for niches. And therein lies the problem: Rdio/podcast criticism of the former kind may be well served by all we’re seeing already — the lists, the occasional writeups by big publications (many of which have been downsizing form-specific critics for years), and so on. The deeper and more thoughtful stuff, the stuff that the Third Coast team advocates for, requires the development of whole new, probably niche, businesses, either within an existing organization or as an entirely new venture. And that is no small thing.

Heads up. The Reply All team is trying out something weird next week: a 48-hour live show where they will take every phone call they get for 48 hours — all day, all night. “We want to see what happens when you open a line to the internet and invite anyone to use it,” wrote Alex Goldman in an email to me. “I have no doubt that will include abuse, pranks, insanity, and very little sleep.” Phone lines open on Monday at 10 a.m. Watch their Twitter and Facebook accounts for the number after that time if you want to participate.

Bites:

  • iHeartMedia dips its toe a little deeper into podcasts with Taglines, a show that comes out of a partnership with Advertising Age. This comes a few months after iHeartMedia rolled out a similar programming partnership with the coworking-space company WeWork. It also follows Libsyn announcing that it would be now distributing podcasts through iHeartMedia’s listening platforms. (Ad Age)
  • I’ve been enjoying the different ways that publications are taking to the Amazon Echo. Here, The Guardian announces its own Alexa skill for the Echo, splitting its flash content pipeline between three categories: news and opinion, reviews, and podcasts. I’m looking forward to seeing how other publications handle design taxonomy. (The Guardian)
  • WNYC’s Note to Self continues its experimentation with audience engagement and service journalism through digital research projects: the show is collaborating with ProPublica on a Chrome-extension-driven study to figure out what, exactly, Facebook knows about you (or thinks it knows about you). (ProPublica)
  • Panoply works to even out its political programming with the inclusion of two gabfest-style podcasts from Ricochet, a conservative website, into its network. I’ve written a little bit about Ricochet and the spread of conservative podcasts before, and if that strikes your fancy be sure to check out this recent article by Wired’s Charley Locke.
  • (Panoply)

  • Quick shoutout to the political podcast producers working overtime to pump out post-debate episodes mere hours after the actual event: Jocelyn Frank and Jayson DeLeon of Panoply’s Slate Political Gabfest and Trumpcast mashup, Brent Baughman of NPR Politics, Galen Druke of FiveThirtyEight, and whoever pulled the super late hours on The New York Times’ Run-Up team.
  • Dropping this here, due to the company’s relative ubiquity as a podcast advertiser: BuzzFeed’s investigation [by former Nieman Lab staffer Caroline O’Donovan —ed.] into Blue Apron’s not-so-wholesome supply practices. (BuzzFeed)

This version of Hot Pod has been adapted for Nieman Lab, where it appears each Tuesday. You can subscribe to the full newsletter here. You can also support Hot Pod by becoming a member, which gets you more news, deeper analysis, and exclusive interviews; more information on the website.

Amazon’s next move is giving its Audible original programming to all Prime members

Just out this morning: Audible Channels now comes bundled with the Amazon Prime membership. The new offering is only available for U.S. members.

Three quick things:

  • While Amazon doesn’t publicly disclose exact numbers of Prime memberships, analysts at Piper Jaffray estimate the number to be around 57 to 61 million people, according to a CNET writeup. A CNN Money report from earlier this year noted that Prime memberships were estimated to have jumped 35 percent across 2015 alone, citing numbers from a Consumer Intelligence Research Partners report.
  • Obviously, this greatly — and automatically — expands the reach of potential listeners with easy access to Audible’s original programming. This development is consistent with, and weirdly expands upon, a speculation I made to Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw in a January article: “Amazon is doing to Audible what it’s done to Prime Video.” This has become the defining lens for the way I read the company.
  • Also worth keeping in mind: Audible’s insistence on not calling their original programming “podcasts.”

And in case you missed it, I wrote about Audible’s first batch of original shows earlier this summer. I wasn’t particularly enthused, but I suppose it was a launch set. Audible Channels costs $4.95 a month for non-members; normal full Audible memberships cost $14.95 a month.

Ken Doctor is putting me out of business. If you’re reading this, you’ll probably be very interested to check out his ongoing five-part series on the podcasting business that Nieman Lab is running this week. The first entry, which came out yesterday, is a fantastic primer to the industry, and holds some ideas that I find are incredibly useful.

Doctor closed his first post with a wonderful series of guiding questions, to which I’d like to add one more: Is it possible for podcasting to grow rapidly while maintaining its openness for independents?

I should’ve taken a vacation this week. But we’ve got some guidelines to talk about.

Your handy guide to the IAB’s guidelines. This is going to be a long one, and a poor sequel to some of what I’ve written before.

Ahead of its second annual podcast upfront event last week, the Interactive Advertising Bureau Tech Lab published its Podcast Ad Metrics Guidelines, a document seeking to assist in the resolution of what has commonly been asserted as the medium’s defining problem: measurability. Given that these guidelines were issued from an ostensibly independent third-party like the IAB, they were much anticipated. In some circles, it’s thought to be just the kind of stuff the industry needs to get its house in order.

Time will tell, of course, whether the document will have some sort of impact. But for what it’s worth, I’m bearish.

Let’s consider the problem. The real issue here is less about podcast measurability than it is about the verification of podcast ad impressions. Specifically, advertisers want to effectively track the delivery of the spots they’re paying for.

And to be even more specific, this issue principally pertains to brand advertisers. The space has long operated on a healthy stream of direct advertisers (your MailChimps, your Audibles, your Blue Aprons, and so on) whose ad buying operations are primarily driven by a focus on promo-code conversions. Their assessments would definitely benefit from better ad verification, but they’re ultimately not dependent on them, because direct advertisers can bypass the black-box nature ((In case you’re not familiar: By “black box,” I mean that, for the majority of downloads, it remains relatively unknowable what happens to a podcast ad once it’s stitched into an episode file and shipped off to a listener.)) of current podcast tracking practices by making their own return-on-investment calculations, based on how many listeners end up using a promo code. In contrast, brand advertisers need to know how many people they are reaching as a way to justify their ad buys, because their advertising initiatives are driven by intangible concepts like mindshare, influence, and brand identity — more fluid factors meant to influence buying decisions over the long term.

From the perspective of advertisers, the problem is that “downloads” don’t mean the same thing across different podcast publishers. Sarah van Mosel, Acast’s chief commercial officer, once phrased the problem to me this way: “Buyers just need to know that when they’re spending $100K on one podcast, they’re getting the same amount of ‘stuff’ as if they spend $100K on another podcast.” The IAB’s goal with this report, then, is to provide a publicly available technical framework that the industry can use as a common language, so that brand advertisers can engage with podcast publishers off a baseline layer of trust. (Implicit in this idea is that the actual accuracy of the technical specs is besides the point — so long as everyone is incorrect in the exact same way.)

If this all sounds extremely familiar to you, it’s because we’ve been here before. Back in February, a consortium of public radio organizations banded together to publish their own set of guidelines on podcast metric measurements. My analysis then (which you can read here) saw the publication of that document as a political move by that consortium to accelerate the IAB’s production of its own report. I was also skeptical about the report’s capacity for impact, and a lot of my thinking then can be directly applied to this situation.

Two chunks on why I’m bearish on the new report:

1. The IAB’s guidelines merely serve as a best practices document — there is no formal enforcement of these standards. To state the obvious, best practices are only as strong as the number of people who adopt them, and as a result, we’re left in a situation where, for the standards to be useful, a critical mass of industry participants must be achieved on their own accord.

But the reason podcast downloads have historically been fluffy is that various players in the space aren’t incentivized right now to speak to advertisers in the same language…or to challenge the narrative of their current reporting systems. Why? A relevant quote in an Observer article from Midroll’s now-CEO Erik Diehn, responding to the public radio guidelines in February: “If everybody adopted these standards today, some shows might come down a little bit in size and some might come down pretty dramatically.” It’s an irrational, but understandable, collective psychology: Though measurement standards in some form or another will benefit companies in the long-term, some are hesitant to suffer in the short-term, and as a consequence, the lesser status quo is favored.

There are few possible paths to a future where the IAB’s guidelines can mean something. For one thing, we could see a future in which a critical mass of podcast publishers — all occupying a solid enough position to sustain whatever corrections the guidelines may bring onto their reporting structures — voluntarily bite the metaphorical bullet, adopt the standards, and collusively enforce those standards by convention. And for another, it’s also possible to see a future in which advertisers would use the mere existence of these guidelines as a “cudgel” (to quote a source) to pressure publishers into being more aggressive about refining their measurement capabilities.

Either outcome would be constructive, but they would be so in spite of the IAB’s guidelines — because the document itself isn’t very good in the first place.

2. Put simply: The IAB’s guidelines appear to be a compromised product. Compared to February’s public radio guidelines document, the IAB’s report is significantly less technically rigorous, with key fundamental definitions still half-heartedly defined. One of several red-flags: a “partial download” is still defined as “a unique file request that was less that 100% downloaded” — which means that a podcast file that’s, say, 1 percent downloaded is still valued as equal to a podcast file that’s, say, 99 percent downloaded.

The report’s lack of a punch might well have something to do with its long drafting process, which stretched well beyond a year. (I’ve been hearing gossip about it since Q2 of 2015, and a lot of that involved talk about internal tensions.) And looking at the eclectic list of volunteer participants involved the process — 23 strong, including representation from new and old podcast companies, public radio institutions, tech companies, legacy media types, and Nielsen — one imagines, given everyone’s possibly clashing incentives, that the fact we even saw a report at all is itself a miracle. One presumes that the process was agonized.

But in the scale of things, I don’t think the report’s miss — or any future fumbles — is going to matter very much. Indeed, I suspect it’s entirely possible that individual companies can secure the interest and trust brand advertisers on their own, converting them for the rest of the industry’s benefit. In Ken Doctor’s Hot Pod-beating column yesterday, National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett cited getting business from Fortune 100 brands brands like Wells Fargo, Dell, and Target. Doctor would further note that “six-figure ad buys, rare until recently, are now more commonplace.”

The question, of course, is whether those dollars, six figures and all, will stay in the industry over time.

Broader considerations. When I’ve written about this topic previously, I’ve often been asked: Why do podcast companies want brand advertisers in the first place? Generally speaking, brand advertising dollars tend to be much bigger and more reliably scheduled across a longer period in time than direct advertising dollars. That kind of money stabilizes — and catalyzes — advertising-driven media businesses. There’s also an element of prestige involved here, and the professionalizing layer of podcast companies are principally driven at this point in time to be accepted as part of the upper echelons of the media industry.

A followup question/thought experiment: Does the podcast ecosystem actually need brand advertisers to function as a legit industry? It’s worth some debate, but I’d argue they aren’t that essential. There’s an entirely plausible future where the podcast ecosystem runs on a rich marketplace of direct and local advertisers powered by dynamic ad insertion technology. That’s provided, of course, that more efficient ad marketplaces will develop somewhere down the line in order to facilitate greater transaction volumes. (And that don’t fully corrupt the advertising experience, preferably.)

There will always be products, services, and people looking for attention, and as such, there will likely always be potential (if hard-fought) dollars for podcast ad slots, whose unique value proposition in the advertising marketplace is that intimacy thing everybody talks about. (Unless, of course, Facebook continues to grow its power and scale as the attention-monster it is beyond all counterargument, in which case we should all just give up and go to welding school.)

But I will say that I think brand advertising dollars would make it substantially easier for podcast companies who aspire to be massive triple-A upper echelon institutions — equivalent to the Big Three labels in the music industry and the major studios in the film industry. Which we should probably follow by asking whether we actually want podcast companies that big in the first place — which is a fair question.

Talking Points Memo now has a podcast offering of its own. The influential left-leaning political news website is attempting the paywalled podcast method. Episodes of the interview-based podcast, called The Josh Marshall Show (named for the site’s founder), are automatically available to the site’s paying TPM Prime members; non-paying readers can buy individual episodes for $1 each off Podbean. A free version, which will feature highlights from the full interviews, will be available to non-members.

Earlier this summer, Marshall told Nieman Lab that its paid subscription arm stabilized the site’s overall business, citing a number of roughly 11,000 paying subscribers.

I’m personally not that much of a TPM consumer, but the rollout strategy is one that I think fits well with the way the site’s system of offerings is already set up: It increases the value of the membership system in a way that matches the podcast format’s capacity for depth with the paying subscriber’s demand for depth. Square peg, meet square hole.

A financial snapshot of an independent podcast. “I’d always heard that new restaurants take five years to show a profit. I have no idea if that’s true, but this was kind of the attitude we went into it with,” said Scott Philbrook. “From day one, we approached it like a business and not a hobby, but we had absolutely zero information on whether or not a podcast that wasn’t backed by a major network or some other corporation could be a viable business model.”

Philbrook is cohost of Astonishing Legends, a California-based podcast that bills itself as the “Click and Clack of esoterica,” its programming focus being strange historical events. Extensively researched, lovingly produced, and presented with the requisite amount of kitsch, the two-year-old show comes out of a rich tradition of podcasts — and media in general, I suppose — that trade in creepiness and pulp, finding kindred spirits in the Pacific Northwest Stories programs and Lore, plus whatever’s going on over at SyFy and the History channel.

It’s also an independent creative operation figuring out its terms of existence. Philbrook and Forrest Burgess, his creative partner and cohost, took some time in a recent episode to discuss the current state of their business:

We’re so grateful to have several hundred patrons pledging amounts from $1 a month all the way to $25, and we’re currently bringing in around $1,500 monthly from that. We’ve also managed to attract the attention of several sponsors and they are testing the waters with us to see if we’re a good investment for their advertising dollars. When you guys support them, they feel good about sponsoring the show. So with three to a max of four sponsors per episode and at the support we have from you on Patreon, our gross income has currently become roughly equivalent to a single person working an entry-level part-time job.

At a time when the more well-financed elements of the industry seek to earn legitimacy and scale from the top-down, Philbrook and Burgess’ discussion provides a window into the conditions of operators on the ground level. Curious, I reached out for more details, and Philbrook was kind enough to spent some time discussing the show’s approach and current financial makeup.

The note Philbrook sent was long and rich with detail, but this newsletter has some serious space constraints (ha), so I’m going to break this out into chunks focusing on the stuff that you can most tangibly use.

1. While the show is currently testing advertising possibilities (more on that in a bit), Patreon plays a huge role in the business. “It’s such a great way to connect with listeners and a lot of listeners really want to help the show out and that’s a way that’s convenient for them,” Philbrook said. All of that Patreon money, which adds up to about $1,500 a month, goes to paying their editor and sound designer. Their editor, Sarah Vorhees, is hired on a per-episode basis, and she charges the team an hourly rate.

“And we’re finally start getting some funds out to our sound designer as well, who’s been working for free from the beginning,” he added. “The money we’ve paid both of them is insulting, but they continue to be available for us for their own reasons. We are within striking distance of getting them their full rates, however.”

2. The show currently has an exclusive sponsorship representation deal with Audioboom, the U.K.-based podcast services company, to cover ad sales. Philbrook noted that they initially attempted to handle advertising directly by themselves, but eventually decided to outsource it, given their production workload. They’ve been represented by Audioboom for almost exactly a year now, and they also host their episodes on Audioboom’s platform.

While Philbrook declined to disclose specifics, he tells me that the show’s advertising revenue outpaces its Patreon haul. But he maintains that their advertising arrangements have been largely experimental, illustrating the difficulty of longer-term planning at this point in time. “We are so grateful to have advertisers, but the thing is when you start out, they are all testing their return on investment, so the sponsorship fees you’re collecting are not necessarily commensurate with your downloads or listens,” he said. “The idea is that if your sponsors see people responding to the live reads you’re doing on your show, and it proves to be a good investment for them, then they come back and you get closer to appropriate rates.”

3. The show currently averages 115,000 downloads per episode across its initial 45 days, the standard Audioboom uses to negotiate advertising. They report having over 4.8 million downloads across the whole catalog since moving over to Audioboom, with an additional 600,000 back when they were hosted on Libsyn.

4. The team also deals with a little merchandising, but they view it more as a way to connect with their listeners than an actual profit center. For one thing, Philbrook tells me, they’re not trading in high volumes, and what little profit they’re able to accrue is often canceled out by the amount of time they put into fulfillment.

5. Philbrook, a former editor of TV commercials, is the only person working on the show full-time, while his cohost Burgess still works a day-job. The production also involves work from a volunteer research group that involves over two dozen people and which formed organically out of the show’s fanbase.

“Our overall experience so far with podcasting has been absolutely amazing,” Philbrook said. “Will we survive indefinitely? It’s hard to know. We’re currently netting about 10 percent of what we think we’d need to be making to both be full time employees of Astonishing Legends and be able to pay members of our team fair rates for what they do for us. Can we get the other 90 percent? I guess we’ll find out.” (Hat tip to Erin M. for inspiring this segment.)

Bites:

  • Last week, I threw a good deal of reflexive shade on Apple’s AirPods announcement. I still think the name is ridiculous — though perhaps no more ridiculous than the word “podcast,” goodness — but I’m totally sold on the argument put forward by Slate’s Will Oremus that Apple’s new tech is an early iteration of an “ear computer,” which functions on a voice-to-cloud computing paradigm not unlike that of the Amazon Echo. (Slate)
  • “With a show that has a celebrity host that companies want to associate their brand with, you can get between $100 and $200 [CPM], which is amazing,” Pineapple Street Media’s Jenna Weiss-Berman tells Fast Company. However, a marketing executive at SeatGeek expressed some skepticism over the rates to me on Twitter. (Fast Company)
  • DGital Media, continuing its sports programming bent, is partnering with “collegiate marketing” company Learfield to produce a suite of college sports-related podcasts. (Press release)
  • NPR will nationally distribute WAMU’s The Big Listen, its podcast-curation radio show. That description was complicated to write. (Current)
  • Overcast, Marco Arment’s bespoke podcast app, tries out display advertising. (Marco.org)
  • Sound designer Shani Aviram and ARRVLS’ Jonathan Hirsch collaborated to make Liminal, a “small-batch” sound library and production house. (Liminal Audio)

Is the Stitcher deal a step toward a closed podcast ecosystem?

Big moves at Midroll Media and EW Scripps. Okay, two big things from Midroll:

(1) E.W. Scripps, the parent company of Midroll Media, has acquired Stitcher, the podcasting app that’s widely considered to be the most popular alternative to the default Apple podcast app, for $4.5 million in cash. According to the Wall Street Journal report on the move yesterday, Stitcher will now operate under Midroll, with the former’s dozen-or-so employees being transferred onto Midroll’s payroll. Stitcher previously operated under Deezer, the French streaming audio company, after the latter acquired it for an undisclosed sum in October 2014. Stitcher had been quiet in terms of new developments ever since.

Acquisition talks started in earnest in early January, Midroll’s vice president of business development Erik Diehn told me over the phone yesterday. “It’s one of those things where serendipity drove the whole process,” he said, adding that both companies had compelling strategic reasons for the acquisition. In a separate call, Midroll CEO Adam Sachs provided clarity on this point: “Stitcher, as we know it as a podcatcher, is the second most popular podcast player in the world, and there’s a lot of value in there right off the bat,” he said. “But there are a lot of other pieces that are also really valuable, like the fact they come with a strong technology team.” Sachs pointed out how Midroll’s technology team has up until this point been fairly small, a state of affairs that complicates the fact that the company is increasingly pushing deeper into initiatives that require a lot more tech talent, like its premium subscription app Howl.

Speaking of Howl, it remains unclear how Stitcher will affect that particular piece of the company’s business. Diehn told The Wall Street Journal that at some point, the apps will “intersect,” and he told me that any plans for such intersection is TBD. “One thing we don’t want to do is disrupt Stitcher, and we don’t want Stitcher to disrupt Midroll,” Diehn said. He further added that Midroll aims to leave Stitcher’s role as a provider-agnostic platform intact, in that it will continue serving users podcasts regardless of where they come from. “We won’t turn it into a walled garden, we’re leaving ads intact, and you won’t start seeing a giant feed of Comedy Bang Bang and Lauren Lapkus and the occasional Midroll show,” Diehn said.

The acquisition met some criticism, however, particularly from Overcast app creator Marco Arment and prominent tech blogger John Gruber, both of whom are strong voices in the podcasts-as-extension-of-the-open-web contingent of the ecosystem. They highlighted Stitcher’s nature as a proprietary platform, whose possible dominance — combined with some suboptimal elements of the platform’s agreements with creators — will lead to a closed ecosystem that’s bad for both creators and consumers . Both posts are worth the read (you can find them here and here). Midroll’s vice president of sales and development Lex Friedman tweeted his disagreement, of course, and promised a more substantial rebuttal in a blog post to come.

All right, so there’s that, but then there’s also the bombshell that…

(2) Adam Sachs, the company’s CEO, is stepping down. Sachs has been the CEO of Midroll since June 2014, taking over from Jeff Ulrich, one of the company’s original founders. He shepherded the company through its acquisition by Scripps in July 2015 for $50 million. Previously, Sachs was the co-founder of Stepout, a dating app acquired by IAC in September 2013.

Sachs first announced his departure to the company in an email sent out last Tuesday. “The truth is that I’ve been running a startup (Stepout and then Midroll) for nearly a decade and that’s exhausting!”, he wrote. “Still, at my core, I’m an entrepreneur. I still have the fire in my belly to build companies.”

According to the note, he will remain at the company for another week, after which he will spend another month on a consulting basis to aid with the transition. There is no clear successor or succession plan in place, though Diehn and Friedman are expected to take up the brunt of Sach’s managerial responsibilities. Sachs told me that a replacement might not take place any time soon, but added that he believes the company has a strong enough management team to handle the interim.

He has no idea what his next move will be, or so he tells me.

As for The Wolf Den, the company’s podcast about the podcast industry, there is also no clear successor in line. Though, from what I hear, Friedman and chief content officer Chris Bannon are campaigning hard for the role.

Highlights from Hivio. I spent the better part of last week in Los Angeles, checking out a digital audio conference called Hivio. The conference drew a quirky mix of commercial radio, public radio, online audio, podcast, and assorted media types, and though it wasn’t immediately clear who, exactly, the audience was meant to be, I found the dynamics involved in the hodgepodge nonetheless informative. Many of these worlds have thus far kept each other at arms’ length, even as some grow more prominent and others begin to question their foundations, and as all these different digital audio sectors continue down what I’m fairly convinced is a collision course, it was great to get an early preview on how everyone will deal with each other.

Anyway, the conference programming drew out a lot of information — and even more rote talking points — and you can check out full recaps elsewhere, but here are a few things that stood out to me:

    • NPR’s vice president of programming and audience development, Anya Grundmann, noted in a presentation that the number of NPR listeners (across all platforms) over the age of 55 is now roughly the same as the number of listeners in the 13-34 age group. That data point comes from an Edison’s Share of Ear study covering the first quarter of 2016.
    • “We’re pleased with the experiment,” says Lizzie Widhelm, Pandora’s senior vice president of ad product sales and strategy, when discussing the company’s partnership with This American Life. Worth noting: Widhelm positioned the partnership as a move to keep its more engaged users from going off-platform in pursuit of spoken word content, something that those users previously couldn’t find on the service before.
    • ESPN’s senior vice president of audio, Traug Keller, dropped a 40 million monthly download number for the company’s on-demand audio content. ESPN, by the way, isn’t a participant in Podtrac’s measurement system, so your mileage may vary.
  • Maximum Fun’s Jesse Thorn notes that the most popular show in his network is Adventure Zone. He also talked about the network’s unique conference/live events business, MaxFunCon, noting that his team is developing a cheaper version in an effort to disrupt itself.

One more thing: It was interesting to see a few commercial radio executives cite ZenithOptimedia’s podcast ad-spend projection — about $36.1 million in 2016 — when discussing the medium’s emergence in relation to their own businesses on-stage. Since that projection was first published some months ago, I’ve heard several podcasting executives vehemently dispute it in private, typically saying something to the effect of “if that’s the number, then my company makes up 30-40 percent of that.” Granted, that retort is totally expected, but I’m inclined to agree just intuiting from the download numbers and CPMs that can be found in publicly available reports. (The Podtrac ranker, for all the caveats involved with its sample, is also very helpful in this regard.)

However, despite these private pushbacks, I haven’t encountered any podcast executive willing to provide a specific alternate estimate…until last Friday, of course, which saw Acast’s chief commercial officer Sarah van Mosel provided an estimated range of $80 to 200 million for 2015 during a presentation — a number she particularly draws from her previous work as WNYC’s vice president of sponsorships.

A glimpse at Future Panoply? Last Friday, the Graham Holdings-owned podcast company (and my former day job employer) announced its latest big-swing project: Revisionist History, a 10-part miniseries by author (and Charlie Kaufman-lookalike) Malcolm Gladwell. The company drew some notable writeups for the announcement, with Fast Company and CNN.com providing coverage on the teaser. Interestingly, the project is positioned as “the thing that Gladwell decided to make instead of a book this season,” which is a pretty solid pitch, I guess.

On stage at Hivio, Panoply chief creative officer Andy Bowers called the podcast a template for future projects. “A lot of podcasts we’ve done so far has followed a simpler, conversational format,” he said, noting that the company will likely be developing more projects with higher production values from here on out. This move makes sense, though I do wonder how this will affect existing Panoply shows, which typically result from partnerships with other publishers.

Revisionist History drops its first full episode on June 16.

Podquest playoffs. Last Thursday, Radiotopia released the list of 10 podcast pitches that have been accepted as semi-finalists into Podquest, its talent search program. From this group of 10, three finalists will be announced in July at the Podcast Movement conference in Chicago, where they will then be made to develop three pilot episodes over the course of four months. The winner, which will be invited into the Radiotopia network, will be announced in November at the Third Coast Festival.

You can find in-depth descriptions of all ten semifinalists on the Podquest site. And if you’re curious, you can find the stat-breakdown of Podquest applicants (1,537 entries! 53 countries! Wah!) on the PRX blog.

Congrats to the crews, and good luck! I’m rootin’ for ya.

Related: “The new audience is really where we are where we want to be — the diverse audience and the young audience, and the young people who haven’t been buying radios. How are they finding content and how do we get in front of them?” Still curious about what’s next for PRX? Check out this Fortune article featuring an interview with PRX’s newly minted CEO Kerri Hoffman by Lauren Schiller, which pairs well with my writeup from two weeks ago.

Towards more pods for kids. A couple of months ago, I wrote a few pieces exploring the relatively quiet genre of kids podcasting, and over the course of my research, I spoke to Lindsay Patterson, one of the creators of Tumble: A Science Podcast for Kids, who proved to be a very, very strong advocate of the space. Now, the Austin-based producer is taking her advocacy to the next level, collaborating with a number of other kid-focused podcast producers to form what they’re calling “a new grassroots organization of podcasters and advocates for high-quality audio content for children.”

“We want to increase visibility for the medium and enable the creation of more great audio shows for kids,” Patterson told me over email. “And since we exist in the children’s space, we think that standards and ethics should be a big part of the conversation.”

The organization will kick off its work with a public survey project that hopes to identify the makeup, behavior, and dynamics of the potential audiences for kids podcasts. “There’s no baseline data for how kids consume (or don’t consume) podcasts,” Patterson wrote. “Our June 2016 survey is a first step toward understanding how our audience values what we do.”

At this point in time, the podcasts participating in Kids Listen are: Tumble, Ear Snacks, Brains On!, Sparkle Stories, Book Club for Kids, StoryPirates, and Zooglobble. (These names!) Its digital presence consists of a Slack, a website, a hashtag (#kidslisten), and social media. “The beginnings of something great,” Patterson added.

The survey launches today. You can find the Kids Listen website here.

New podcast study from comScore. The report found that podcast advertisements were found to be the least intrusive compared to other kinds of digital advertising formats, according to Adweek. It should be noted that the survey study was commissioned by Wondery, a fairly new podcast network based in Los Angeles, suggesting increased efforts among podcast companies to raise the overall awareness of the space. To my eyes, the study itself isn’t as interesting as the fact that comScore produced it. There’s been an emerging argument among some circles that the big thing holding back more brand advertisers from jumping into the space is not necessarily the medium’s well-known measurements problem, but the absence of a reputable, legacy measurements company like comScore and Nielsen actively participating and vetting the space. This comScore study isn’t quite the active participation that will lead to a so-called legitimization the space is looking for, but I think it’s a good step.

Where to, newsmagazine? Add Steve Lickteig, former executive producer of All Things Considered and current executive producer of Slate podcasts, to the list of public radio emigres publishing essays on the future of audio. Lickteig wrote a Slate piece last Thursday arguing that voice-recognition technology — à la Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s…OK Google thing, which will soon be integrated into car dashboards en masse — will marginalize (or even kill) the straightforward broadcasts, a state of affairs that poses a significant threat to the newsmagazine format.

Central to Lickteig’s argument is the expectation that on-demand consumption behaviors will vastly supersede consumption behavior around linear formats. Here’s the key quote (heads up, the Keith Olbermann reference is related to the lede in Lickteig’s piece):

While listening to the radio remains easier than the alternative, it’s not very satisfying for the generation of people raised in an on-demand culture. People Keith Olbermann’s age (he’s 57) feel an obligation to consume news as it’s served. Tell a bunch of 19-year-olds that it should be up to the professionals to determine what news is most important, and they’ll laugh until their earbuds fall out.

There are a couple of really interesting elements in Lickteig’s argument here that you can spool out, including the notion that us ~millennials~ and post-millennials (whatever you call those people) have in large swathes no love for editorial judgment. But I think the most interesting and pressing element here is the glimpse Lickteig provides at an underlying process that sees the further atomization of audio content and information into discrete units that users can customize, shift, and reorient…not unlike the way we exist as digital consumers of music now. (If I branded myself as some sort of thought leader, this would be the point where I’d regretfully coin the phrase the Spotification of News.)

Here’s my counterpoint to Lickteig’s bullish argument: As a voracious consumer of many, many different types of media, I’d argue that the tyranny of choice and control is totally real. And it’s absolutely crippling. (Consider two things: the gaping abyss that stares back at you from the Netflix menu, and the relief embedded in celebrations of Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature.)

Which isn’t to say, of course, that I disagree with the broad strokes of Lickteig’s forecasts: Indeed, the broadcast newsmagazine format as we know it today will likely become ineffectual, as will all other creations of linearity, like the nightly news, SportsCenter, and the front page. But I’d argue that this isn’t a consequence of the decline of broadcast; rather, it’s a consequence of the relegation of broadcast from being the primary information channel to being one-of-many in a much larger arsenal of information presentation. And yeah, sure, a story of decline always sucks, but there’s that thing about lemonade: When you’re no longer expected to be dominant, you’re liberated from the pressure — and design limitations — of dominance.

That’s no small consolation. In my mind, at least.

Bites:

  • DGital Media announced “league direct partnership” with the UFC to produce a show covering the mixed martial arts league. This will prove to be an interesting addition to the company’s portfolio of partnerships, which includes Recode and Yahoo’s The Vertical. (UFC)
  • Bloomberg News launched the latest in its steadily growing stable of podcast, Material World, a show that will deliver stories on the consumer goods world. I’ll more about Bloomberg podcasts at some point — they’ve got a unique structure going on over there — but for now, keep your eyes on Bloomberg News HQ. (iTunes)
  • Radio Diaries published quite a remarkable episode recently, featuring a young woman in Saudi Arabia, Majd, documenting her life over two years. It aired as a 22-minute segment on All Things Considered, with which the podcast has a partnership, last Tuesday. I listened to it over the weekend, and my goodness, it’s quite lovely. (Radio Diaries)
  • NPR launched Code Switch, its newest podcast, last week. The show will explore issues at the intersection of race and culture, and from the sound of its first episode, it appears to draw heavy influence from the specificity and presentational looseness of the NPR Politics podcast. Nieman Lab has a great interview with principals Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby, which you should totally check out. (Nieman Lab)
  • Speaking of public radio launches, WNYC rolled out More Perfect, the Radiolab spinoff focusing on the Supreme Court, last week. The podcast is being billed as a mini-series. (Radiolab)
  • Audioboom signs the popular Undisclosed podcast to an “exclusive ad sales deal.” (RAIN News)