Making Gay History’s podcast digs into interview archives to let voices “come to life again”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 120, published May 16, 2017.

On the podcasts to TV beat. A couple of developments here:

(1) ABC has officially picked up the television adaptation of Gimlet’s StartUp, according to Deadline. However, the project is now in search of a name due to another upcoming show, also titled Startup, that’s slated to roll out on the streaming service known as Crackle. (You know, the one that used to have Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee before it moved over to Netflix, or whatever. Television: It’s a strange, strange world.)

(2) CNN is reportedly testing out the prospect of bringing former Obama senior advisor David Axelrod’s podcast, The Axe Files, into the cable television format, according to Variety. Here’s something in the writeup that stood out to me:

Producers want the tone of Axelrod’s podcast to work with the TV audience. “We are really trying to do something that is simple and straightforward,” said Rebecca Kutler, executive producer of the show, who added: “We are really trying to keep it similar to the podcast, keeping it as a long form conversation, one guest for a full hour. What David is able to do so well is talk about the guest’s story.”

That’s a tricky gambit. The work of effective adaptation across mediums — of a project from book to screen, from podcast to television, from a local print newspaper to a digital local news website — involves a keen eye on the defining traits of a work separate from how it’s enabled within its original format and a willingness to let the characteristics of the new medium take over. Pardon the ham-fisted metaphor, but I reckon it’s a little like an organ transplant: No matter how good the organ is, it has to adapt to the rules of the new body in order to survive the transition.

Ponzi in the wild. It looks as if Audible is now distributing Ponzi Supernova, one of its major (and more interesting) original audio programs, out in the open podcast ecosystem. The show, which followed journalist Steve Fishman as he tried to tell a broader picture about Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme, wrapped its initial run as an Audible Original exclusive to the platform back in February. As of May 5, that exclusivity no longer applies: the show is being released as a weekly serialized podcast, and it’s being packaged with ads (from Audible, of course).

Two quick thoughts:

  • At risk of getting into a whole discourse over semantics, I wonder — can this still be considered an example of windowing? On the one hand, it fits the bill in literal terms: The show first appeared exclusively on the paywalled Audible platform and benefited from the scarcity-generated value, before being distributed everywhere else. But on the other hand, the strategic goal here is different; whereas in the case of something like Missing Richard Simmons, the point for Stitcher was to capture as much of the value upfront during the original run, this Audible initiative feels more like a traditional marketing move, in which Ponzi Supernova is being implemented as a marketing vessel for the Audible service. (There is some similarity here to the structural function of a branded podcast.)
  • Between this project and Mogul, I do find it hard to appropriately plan coverage given their staggered rollouts. Two questions prevail in my mind when making the choice: Where is the real meat concentrated, and when is the better time to drive the momentum of a possible conversation about these projects — during its closed run, or when it’s released to a wider audience, which is probably when more people would likely benefit from a writeup?

More summer preview notes. Whip out them board shorts:

  • Here are my 12 picks of the most anticipated podcast launches coming out this summer.
  • NPR posted its lineup on its press blog. Note the addition of something called Rough Translation, which will apparently be a show that serves international reporting. That’s super exciting. (Also, as a side note, it’s worth clocking that only Alix Spiegel and Hanna Rosin will return as hosts on the latest season of Invisibilia. I’m told that Lulu Miller is off on book leave, though she did do some work on this latest season.)
  • Night Vale Presents has added another show to its summer lineup: an interview show called Conversations with People Who Hate Me featuring Dylan Marron, who plays Carlos in the Welcome to Night Vale, having a conversation with someone who has sent him a hateful message. The actual launch date has yet to be determined.
  • Meanwhile, Audible is reviving Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist for the audio format.

Hit me up with your own summer launches if you got ’em, and I’ll put them up when I can.

Personnel notes. Some movers, some shakers:

(1) As expected, Ben Calhoun is returning to This American Life. Calhoun made the news public this week, not too long after it was announced that he was leaving the Chicago public radio station WBEZ — and former home of This American Life — where he was VP of content and programming.

(2) Pineapple Street Media has hired Ann Heppermann as a full-time producer. Heppermann is the founder of the Sarah Lawrence International Audio Fiction Awards and has served as a freelance producer for a variety of companies, including Slate.

(3) This week, Midroll welcomes a new member to the C-suite: Amy Fitzgibbons, who will serve as VP of marketing. She joins from PhotoShelter, a software-as-a-service company in the photography industry.

Intelligence Squared, U.S.-flavored. It might seem a little quaint, in this era of pronounced intentional disinformation, to still hold some belief in the transformational power of debate — conducted in good faith and civil manner — but I’ll cop to it. No matter how strange and crazy things might get out there, I’ll still stump for the idea of a future in which a reasonable exchange of ideas can be a truly dominant and effective form of discourse. I don’t have much hope for it, but a dude can dream for a softer world.

Anyway, this is all a meandering preamble to talk about the American version of Intelligence Squared, an organization that stages debates around the world. Intelligence Squared US, the local version of the enterprise, has been around for about a decade now, and aside from live debates, the organization has also been pretty effective at distributing the festivities across a variety of platforms. I’m told that the podcast version, of which I’m a fan, garnered almost 4 million downloads across 16 episodes in 2016.

Recently, the organization tested out a new debate format for the first time in its ten-year history: Instead of the classic structure of two teams taking opposite sides on an issue, a recent bonus episode saw five debaters representing five different sides on a given motion, which allowed for a more finely cut approach to spinning out the various threads of a complex issue. In this case, that issue was the question of Trump’s first 100 days in office.

I figured that this is a good time, then, to check in with the organization and get a piece up on what they’re all about. So I sent over some questions, and Clea Conner Chang, the show’s chief operating officer, was kind enough to respond:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you tell me about the history of Intelligence Squared US?[/conl]

[conr]Clea Conner Chang: It all started in 2005 when our chairman, Robert Rosenkranz, attended an Intelligence Squared debate in London. He was deeply troubled by the tone of what was coming out of the cable news networks at the time, and thought that bringing the debates to the U.S. would be a good way to encourage civil discourse and meaningful discussion of opposing ideas. At that time, the debates had been running for two years in London, and he bought the rights to bring them here. In September of 2006, we produced our first debate here in New York. This year is our tenth anniversary, and we now have more than 135 debates in our archive.

The debates take place in front of a live audience and have been recorded for broadcast on public radio from the very beginning. For a long time, NPR was our distributor, and in early 2007 our first podcast was released on iTunes. At one point that year, we ranked as the #4 most-downloaded program — right behind This American Life, Fresh Air, and Prairie Home Companion, which was very exciting. Today, our podcast is part of the Panoply network, and the radio show airs on more than 225 public radio stations across the country.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What, exactly, is the corporate structure of Intelligence Squared US?[/conl]

[conr]Chang: We’re a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that was founded to address a fundamental problem in America: the increasing polarization of our nation and our politics. Our mission is to restore critical thinking, facts, reason and civility to American public discourse, and we pursue that mission through our debate series.

We are a team of six plus our host, John Donvan. All of our operations, from content development to producing each show to marketing the series, are managed in-house. And we have an extended family of very talented designers, editors, and crew that are instrumental to making IQ2US the first-class live production that it is.

In addition to the podcast and radio program, we also record debates for televised broadcasts and digital streaming on Facebook Live and YouTube. You’ll find us on AppleTV and Roku as well. We also work with different media organizations, such as Newsy, to develop special content, like a 2-minute debate series on the issues.

A key part of our work is building an engaged community that is open-minded and curious about both sides of the issues. To that end, our audience votes to declare the winner of each debate, and the side that changes the most minds wins. After every debate, we hear an echo: people say they never expected to change their mind on the topic.

Tickets are available to general public for $25–$40, and we make the debates easily accessible, for free, through all of the mediums I just mentioned. It’s also a major priority for us to publish our research and make debate resources available to educational institutions nationwide.

I guess that was a long way of saying we are a stand-alone media organization — with a purpose![/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What was the thinking behind trying out the new format?[/conl]

[conr]Chang: The idea for the new format was developed by our host, John Donvan. One of the great things about the Oxford-style debate is that it’s so focused — it allows for the kind of in-depth analysis of a subject that’s hard to find anywhere else in the media.

But there are also topics that we’d like to cover that are hard to fit into a strict for/against discussion. And one of those, believe it or not, is President Trump. Or at least some of President Trump’s accomplishments during his first 100 days in office. We were very interested in how people from across the political spectrum, depending on the topic, agreed and disagreed. And when they were in agreement, the reasons sometimes didn’t overlap. So this debate format gave us the opportunity to have 5 very different people onstage, who came to all four of our “micro” debate topics in very different ways. It allowed for a lot of nuance and some interesting partners over the course of the evening.

For example, you had Trump immigration advisor Kris Kobach and Slate’s chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie both arguing that the media was out to get Trump. But of course, they disagreed on whether that was a good thing.[/conr]

[storybreak]

The making of Making Gay History. The first time I discovered the Making Gay History podcast, which is a sort-of adaptation of a core book project that collects personal interviews of various individuals that populate the wider swathe of LGBTQ history, I was randomly scanning through the iTunes directory for new history podcasts over Christmas. (You know, as you do.) It instantly struck me as a fascinating project on a number of levels: how the podcast functions as an extension of the work done in a pre-existing book project; how it expands the value of primary research material; how it uses the podcast RSS feed as its own kind of archival vessel.

I crossed paths recently with Eric Marcus, the man behind the project, and that encounter was somewhat fortuitous: I had, for some reason or another, been thinking a lot about archives over the past few weeks, especially nowadays when federal databases and information sources seem to be disappearing. So, in an effort to pick his brain for some thoughts on archives and the potential value podcasting might bring to that endeavor, I reached out, and instead I got instead a rich, textured recollection of how the Making Gay History podcast came to be. It’s packed with detail and people and process that I think many, hoping to set out on their own projects, might find it useful. I’ll get to the archive stuff some other time, and in what might perhaps be a manner that’s too on the nose, I’ll let Marcus unload his own personal history here:

The making of the Making Gay History podcast story begins on September 11, 2015. That’s the day I was fired from my job at a suicide prevention organization where I was responsible for programs for people who have lost a loved one to suicide. Once I caught my breath I did what you do when you have to figure out next steps. First, I looked at my assets — my work experience, past projects I’d filed away, ideas I’d started to develop but hadn’t pursued, etc. One key asset I had was an audio archive that the New York Public Library had recently digitized. The archive included about 100 interviews that I’d conducted for the two editions of my book Making Gay History (the original 1992 title was Making History), which is an oral history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement from World War II until 2001.

The second thing I did was have lots of conversations with people I know and people I was referred to by the people I know. My primary goal in having these conversations was to figure out what I might do with my archive, which I knew had value, especially as many of these stories had never been told and most of the people I’d interviewed had died.

One of the people I talked to was my longtime friend Kevin Jennings, who was then the executive director of the Arcus Foundation. Kevin had some suggestions regarding who I might talk to and to make a long story short, I was introduced to Debra Fowler and Miriam Morgenstern, the two educators who run History UnErased, a nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to creating LGBTQ-inclusive K-12 curricula. We talked, we met, we had dinner and decided that three to five-minute clips from my audio archive would be the perfect jumping off point for some of their middle- and high-school lesson plans.

With a grant in hand from the Arcus Foundation to create what I called “mini-podcasts,” I spoke with my friend and neighbor (we live across the street from each other in NYC) Sara Burningham, an independent radio producer, and asked if she could “cut tape.” Another long story short, Sara thought that our rough cuts, which were between eight and ten minutes, sounded like a podcast. We were both astonished by how powerfully inspiring and moving these archival interviews were, which made us all the more determined to bring these voices and stories to a wide audience beyond their use for History UnErased’s curricula. We thought that the podcast format would be a perfect fit — that it would allow these interviews to come to life again, for people to hear these voices for the first time.

To strengthen her podcast producing skills, Sara took a multi-day workshop at the end of last summer — run by Rose Eveleth at UnionDocs — where Jenna Weiss-Berman from Pineapple Street Media was a guest instructor for the final presentation class. Jenna loved what she heard and asked Sara how she could help. Under Jenna’s wing, we launched the fully fledged podcast about four weeks later in time for LGBT History Month, complete with a robust website and a production schedule that included ten episodes. Jenna and Pineapple Street are our pro bono co-producers. We also record our intros and outros at Pineapple’s Brooklyn studio.

During those few weeks between the podcast class and our launch, we contracted with a web designer and social media strategist. And soon after we launched we were fortunate to have a volunteer researcher come on board. Along the way we were introduced to the wonderful people at the ONE Archives and ONE Archives Foundation, who have helped with photos. And we’ve had ongoing support from the New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division, including the use of their archival photos.

Based on the success of the first season, we began thinking about a second season and how we were going to finance it. I made some calls about potential funding and one of the people I spoke with, Barbara Raab, a program officer at the Ford Foundation, was able to provide funding support.

From the beginning we were aware that it can be tough for an independent podcast to make a splash. So we were stunned by the amount of press attention we had for our first season and we’ve been delighted by the overwhelmingly positive response we’ve had from listeners from around the world. Over the course of our two seasons (season 2 concluded on May 4), we’ve had more than one million episode downloads.

We’re now seeking funding for season 3, which we’re planning to launch in October to coincide with LGBT History Month.

Bites:

  • “Starting in June, NPR One users in New York, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago will be able to use a ‘one-touch’ donation process…A five-day international pilot in July will take a similar approach to collecting donations from NPR One users in the U.K., marking the first time the network will accept donations directly from listeners.” (Current)
  • This is cool: APM Marketplace’s story producer Jennie Josephson has a blog post up on the music used for the Make Me Smart podcast. (Marketplace)
  • The Third Coast Festival has announced the judges for the 2017 edition of its Richard H. Driehaus Foundation competition. Submissions are open today. (TCF)
  • From the submission box: “Our latest podcast episode, Serious Jolt, follows the story of a young, SF-based man reviving Yemeni coffee for global exports (fun fact — the art of the brewing coffee first originated in Yemen)…When everything in the US about Yemen is war, bombs, and famine, we think it’s really refreshing to hear a story that people can actually relate to: coffee.” (Hebah Fisher, Kerning Cultures)

[photocredit]Photo by Tony Webster used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

NPR’s upcoming daily news podcast sounds like a Morning Edition promo, which would be too bad

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 114, published April 4, 2017.

First things first. NPR announced Monday that it’s launching something called Up First, a take on the morning news brief podcast that draws from the DNA of Morning Edition, one of NPR’s two tentpole programs. Editions will be published at 6 a.m. ET on weekdays, starting Wednesday, and it will feature the same team of David Greene, Rachel Martin and Steve Inskeep on hosting duties.

Nieman Lab, Poynter, and NPR’s own press blog have the assorted details on the project, including the press messaging surrounding this launch (“a way to do it that makes sense for the whole system”), target demographic breakdown (young folk, clearly), and the names involved in its development (note the headlining of Morning Edition EP Sarah Gilbert and NPR GM of pdcasting Neal Carruth).

Let’s talk big picture here. The most meaningful way to read this launch is to think through what it tells us about how NPR is balancing the need innovate in order to set itself up for the future with the delicate politics and incentives strung out across the wide spectrum of local public radio stations that make up its major constituency, whose carrier fees for NPR’s major news programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered make up a sizable chunk of NPR’s revenue. (And, I suppose, whose well-being is sort of among NPR’s main reasons for being.) The Nieman Lab write-up, in particular, examines this dynamic, and it’s telling how Gilbert and Carruth talk up the groundwork that was done to attain political support from stations. “A lot of station managers we have spoken to in preparation for this launch have expressed genuine excitement about the possibility of reaching a new discrete, younger audience, and finding a way to invite them into the public radio system,” Gilbert told Nieman Lab.

But it is the way Up First resembles a top-of-the-funnel instrument more than anything else that most draws my attention. Each episode is said to be made up of the “A” segment from the 5 a.m. ET newscast that’s sandwiched between a preview of the other stories in the edition along with…well, what sounds like marketing material for public radio. “We’re also going to have language in the episodes that tells listeners — many of whom will be new to public radio content — about the public radio system, the availability of all kinds of incredible programming on our stations, guiding them in finding ways to donate, if they want to donate to their local stations,” Carruth said later on in the article.

In other words, it sounds like a big, fat Morning Edition podcast promo.

Perhaps another way to look at it is to view Up First as an audio equivalent of the morning news email newsletter digest — though not the beefy, newsletter-first constructions like Politico Playbook or CNN’s Reliable Sources newsletter, but something closer to, say, The New York Times’ First Draft, whose existence is designed to pull readers to a core destination.

I suppose all of that is perfectly fine, but it’s nevertheless disappointing given what appears to be the heating-up of a content area that’s long been discussed as fertile land for on-demand audio: the newsy podcast. Up First’s launch comes about two months after The New York Times drew first blood with the format (Marketplace’s Morning Report doesn’t count, alas) in the shape of its 10- to 20-minute weekday morning news brief The Daily. Though calling The Daily a “news brief” is somewhat imprecise, as that show functions a lot more like a straightforward news magazine that feels incredibly native to the podcast format, given its impressive dedication (and resource allocation) to structuring each edition around one or two stories that are exclusive to podcast, often providing deeper or additional reporting on the biggest stories from the day before, and executing them in a rich, intimate, non-broadcast-reminiscent style. That design gambit has yielded a unique and compelling package, and though it has certainly made the occasional choice falling from its design commitments that have led to criticism (I’m still mulling over the interview in question from last week, and find myself increasingly perturbed), it is absolutely a creature of its own and is cultivated as such.

It’s bad form to sling a full judgment on Up First without actually experiencing it firsthand, so I’ll give it a couple of weeks before piping up conclusively. And I will also say that I’m fully cognizant that this is a podcast execution that’s probably unique to Morning Edition within the context of NPR, given its political complexity within the broader public radio ecosystem. I will also say that NPR’s other podcasting efforts have proven to be more encouraging, between the stuff they’ve been doing with NPR Politics and Embedded as well as whatever the heck they’re cooking up with Sam Sanders. But I’m just inclined to pour one out for a genuine go at building out a full-blown NPR News podcast, which is something I now suspect might never actually happen.

Ah well, back to Barbaro it is.

Apple freeze? Digiday has an article on the emerging windowing trend that we’re seeing in the podcast industry — prominent first with Missing Richard Simmons, and then with the Spotify deal with Gimlet over what is now known as Mogul: The Chris Lighty Story — and while the write-up mostly touched on developments that shouldn’t be particularly new for Hot Pod readers (relevant issues here and here), the piece does bring forth a genuinely juicy scooplet that might be worrying, depending on where you stand:

According to multiple people familiar with the matter, Apple was excited about promoting Missing Richard Simmon until it heard about the windowing strategy. They subsequently abandoned all the marketing plans for the show, those people said.

If true (I’ve heard talk on my end that corresponds with this, but I couldn’t corroborate on the record with full confidenc,
and if we still buy the premise that Apple continues to drive the majority of podcast listening, and if we also continue to buy that the iTunes front page is still a meaningful driver of podcast discovery, then we’re left with what is the clearest example of Apple, previously described as a dominant but hands-off of the podcast ecosystem, actively placing its thumb on the scale when it comes to dictating the shape of the space. That Missing Richard Simmons ended up being a success regardless is interesting, but nonetheless irrelevant; this is a situation that feasibly validates the fears of those who are concerned about the unchecked conduct of Apple as a governing platform.

One imagines this also adds fuel to the fire among the pockets of the community that feel that, at the rate and substance that the podcast industry is growing, the way things are with Apple can’t possibly be sustainable, with its erratic charts system, its user experience, its opacity. But then again, that’s kind of the story of all modern digital publishing.

I reached out to Apple for comment yesterday, but have not heard back.

One more on windowing… looks like The Ringer will distribute its MLB podcast exclusively on TuneIn Radio for the month of April, a development that might worry some of the more open internet-oriented folks in the industry.

Early S-Town numbers. It’s a whopper: the Serial spinoff reportedly enjoyed 10 million downloads in four days since launch day, according to Variety. That report came from before the weekend, so it’s possible there’s a bump we can’t account for, though it has traditionally been unclear whether listening happens very much on the weekends. But given S-Town’s unique full-season release structure — which encourages binges — and buzzy profile, it’s feasible to think that the show might’ve enjoyed anomalous weekend listening behavior.

Two quick things about the Variety article:

— The 10 million number refers to overall downloads, not unique downloads as a proxy of the actual size of the audience base. Back-of-the-napkin math (10 divided by 7 to spell it out, but I mean come on) places that somewhere north of 1 million unique listeners at the time of publication.

— From the piece: “In another data point highlighting the popularity of S-Town, the feed for the podcast series already has 1.45 million subscribers since Serial Productions released the trailer a little over two weeks ago. By comparison, the Serial feed has 2.4 million, and This American Life has 2 million.” I’m told that Serial Productions uses Feedburner to check these numbers, and that the number was up to 1.48 million by Monday morning. Feed subscription numbers aren’t exactly a metric that’s in vogue among the industry at this point in time, but that’s besides the point: compared against its own portfolio, S-Town has performed very well within a very short period of time.

Two curious developments from WNYC. I haven’t written very much about the station recently — probably my own oversight as opposed to the station genuinely laying low — but two things caught my eye over the past week:

— The station announced in an internal email last Wednesday that it will not be renewing its relationship with The Sporkful, the James Beard-award nominated food podcast hosted by Dan Pashman that’s been in the WNYC portfolio since 2013.

“Despite our pride in what we have accomplished, we’ve made the tough decision not to renew The Sporkful and so that means we will be saying farewell to Dan and Anne this week,” WNYC’s chief content officer Dean Cappello wrote. “That’s not a commentary on the show’s growth or the work in any way but rather a recognition of the changes that are inevitable as we continue to grow WNYC Studios.”

I’m told that the decision to part ways actually took place several months ago, with Pashman given ample runway to secure a new home. A new network has indeed moved to pick up The Sporkful, though its identity remains uncertain to me. Details of the arrangement will announced sometime over the next two weeks, ahead of the podcast’s relaunch on April 17.

For anybody keeping a record (and I know there’s a Greek chorus of you): the last show to leave WNYC was Hillary Frank’s The Longest Shortest Time, which ultimately landed at Earwolf.

(2) Several readers also flagged this job posting last week: WNYC is apparently looking for a branded content producer. Here’s the most salient portion of the job description:

You will be part of a little startup agency nested within an established, mission-driven organization populated by the most creative and pioneering audio producers in the country. Your focus will be creating original podcasts and bringing to life other cross-platform productions on behalf of our sponsor partners…

I’m still wrapping my head around this, though it does strike me as genuinely surprising — and more than a little strange — that a public radio station, especially one as big and prominent as WNYC, is moving to develop what looks like an in-house creative advertising agency. When contacted for comment, a spokesperson simply told me: “For several years now, clients and agencies have been asking us about creating custom content. And like every media organization, we’re trying to meet the needs of our clients who are eager to work with us.” Hm.

While we’re on the subject of public radio…

(1) I’m following the WUTC story, in which the Chattanooga-based NPR affiliate station fired reporter Jacqui Helbert after local lawmakers complained about Helbert’s reporting on a state transgender bathroom bill.

There’s a thick line you could draw between this incident and the Marketplace-Lewis Wallace story from February, and also between this story and the West Virginia Public Broadcasting state defunding crisis from last month, which was only superficially resolved after Governor Jim Justice pulled back on defunding and pushed toward a deal that would see the state’s public broadcasting infrastructure integrated into West Virginia University. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga owns and operates WUTC, and Helbert’s dismissal is said to have been a decision made by university officials, not newsrooms editors, providing one notable data point for a question I wondered aloud when writing up the West Virginia Public Broadcasting story: how does university ownership affect a public broadcasting system?

Anyway, the WUTC story is far from over. Since Helbert’s dismissal, NPR has condemned the decision, and the reporter has filed a lawsuit against the university.

(2) Missed this last week, but Ben Calhoun, the VP of content and programming at WBEZ, is leaving the station, according to Robert Feder (the all-powerful source of Chicago media news). Calhoun is expected to return to This American Life, where he had served as a producer between 2010 and 2014. It is unclear who is up to take over the position.

(3) On Current: “CPB board members excoriate colleague for publicly backing defunding.”

Alice Isn’t Dead returns for its second season today, as Night Vale Presents pushes forward in its intriguing attempt to build out a predominantly fiction-oriented podcast network (it has one nonfiction project, a documentary collaboration with indie band The Mountain Goats, in the pipeline) off the long-running momentum cultivated with Welcome to Night Vale. I’m told that the first season’s ten episodes collectively garnered over five million downloads, as of last week. That season ran from March to July 2016. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Panoply readies its follow-up to Revisionist History. The project is called The Grift, a podcast on the world of con artists hosted by psychologist and author Maria Konnikova. Konnikova is a regular on Slate’s The Gist, and I suppose you could call The Grift a podcast adaptation of the work Konnikova has built out for her book The Confidence Game, which was published early last year.

The Grift appears to represent Panoply’s next step in a strategy that originated with Revisionist History, where the network partners with a known author — in that case Malcolm Gladwell, whose value in the marketplace has long been proven — to create a highly produced, non-linear podcast that more or less resembles the composition of your basic nonfiction New York Times bestseller. This also seems to be the programming zone within which Panoply feels most comfortable developing its big swing projects.

Coming up with benchmark numbers to evaluate The Grift is a little tricky. When asked about Revisionist History’s numbers, a Panoply spokesperson told me the company doesn’t share download or subscriber numbers for any of its shows at this time. I was told the same thing when I reached out a few weeks ago for numbers on Life After, the network’s most recent fiction project. The best I can come up with is a number pulled from a rosy Bloomberg profile of Panoply published ahead of its launch last summer, where chief revenue officer Matt Turck was quoted saying that Revisionist History “could draw over 500,000 downloads per episode” — citing Apple marketing support and Gladwell’s #personalbrand as factors in his prediction — which the article also notes would match the best performance of The Message.

The Grift dropped its first episode today.

Audio fiction over the past year. Last Tuesday saw the second annual Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Awards. It’s an increasingly active time in the fiction podcast space: the higher-profile projects, growing interest in adaptation deals, the rising ambition both in terms of quality and quantity. I checked in with Ann Heppermann, the awards’ founder, to get her view on what has changed in the genre over the past year or so.

From where you sit, how has audio fiction changed over the past year?

Over the past year, it feels as though there have been seismic changes as well as a continuation of certain trends. This year, The Sarah Awards saw many more submissions from audio networks — and nearly, if not all, of the major podcasting networks entered this year from Panoply to Gimlet to Wondery to Radiotopia to many others. To me, that’s a good sign. It says that those who are in the business of making money from audio believe that audio fiction is something that’s both a worthwhile creative endeavor and a profitable one. It also says to me that there is a possible future for students, like mine, who are learning and want to create fiction. Not that long ago, I would encourage young producers who wanted to create audio fiction that if they wanted to make any money at it they should look into creating works for audiences outside the United States, primarily for the BBC and Australian markets. Now, gasp, I think that there might actually be some jobs they could apply for in the near future. It’s awesome.

Creatively, I feel like we are seeing more series as well as more high-budget productions. Thrillers and science fiction seem to continue to dominate the audio fiction world — or at least, in the submissions we received from this year and last — but for this year I would say that the Sarah Awards judges chose pieces representing the vast array of work that is being created. Yes, there were thrillers and science fiction pieces amongst the winners but there were also musicals, political fiction, and whatever unique category needs to be made up for Andrea Silenzi and Randy. Maybe next year an audio sitcom or an audio telenovela or some S-Town Faulkner-esque piece will win a Sarah Award. In my mind, it feels like the possibilities are endless.

What are the challenges that are still holding audio fiction back, in your opinion?

Even though I’m extremely excited about how large networks are getting more involved and that Hollywood stars signing up for audio fiction projects, I worry that it could become more difficult for creative people with lower budgets to have their works made and find audiences. I also worry that those who are putting a lot of money in these projects will be less willing to take creative risks because they, rightfully so, have to worry about the return on their investments. So the thing that excites me, increased professionalization, also scares me a little bit.

Another challenge is that there is a lot of fantastic audio fiction happening behind paywalls that I don’t think people are finding. Audio fiction can be incredibly expensive and so paywalls do make sense, but it’s just that currently most people don’t want to pay for it. I’m sure that will change, and I know that people are working on ways to mix up their fiction offerings so that their programming consists of free as well as paywall content, but I just hope they can figure it out soon because there’s some awesome stuff behind the paywall that I personally wish had larger audiences.

Oh, and diversity. The field, as with all things podcasting, needs a lot more of it—from creators to writers to producers to actors to works in languages other an English. Diversity, diversity, diversity.

You can read about the winners of this year’s Sarah Awards, and more about audio fiction more generally, on the website.

Bites:

  • Shannon Bond’s latest: “Marketers aren’t waiting for the arrival of ads on voice-powered devices – they’re already there.” (FT)
  • A couple of podcast-related honorees at the Gracie Awards, an awards ceremony presented by the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation to celebrate women in the media and media about women: Nora McInerny was named best podcast host for her work on APM’s Terrible, Thanks for Asking, and the fourth season of Gimlet’s Startup, where host Lisa Chow and team covered former American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, won best podcast. (website)
  • Did you know that Keith Ellison, congressman and recently named deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, has a podcast? Well he does, it’s called We The Podcast (yep), and he just started it back up. (Vanity Fair)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decoding what makes a podcast a hit on the iTunes charts

Edison Research: Monthly podcast consumption surges. More than 1 in 5 Americans report having listened to a podcast within the past month, according to data teased in a new blog post by Edison Research. Specifically, 21 percent of Americans (an estimated 57 million) report having done so, representing a pretty significant jump from 2015, which saw 17 percent of surveyed Americans reporting that behavior. In 2014, that number was 15 percent, so growth seems to be accelerating.

Another sweet way to cut it: Monthly American podcast consumption grew about 24 percent between 2015 and 2016. Don’t you just love stats?

It’s certainly an encouraging data point for all who are enthusiastic about podcasts as the future of radio/audio/blogging. And I’m certainly tempted to think that we’re finally seeing evidence of tangible widescale conversions from all the buzz and hype that podcasting enjoyed last year.

A plausible counterargument is as follows: Is this number a true reflection of solid, genuine, sustainable consumer acquisition (and retention) across the medium, or does it more represent a period where listeners are merely testing out the format? That question, to some extent, is irrelevant for two reasons. First, it’s a question with no meaningful immediate answer, because the process is still playing itself out. And second, the number itself is an influencing factor — as a positive public indicator that fuels for the industry’s vision and presentation of itself, one imagines that countless folks out to build new businesses within the medium will use this statistic in a pitch deck, playing out a fulfillment of their own prophecy.

Which is all to say: This data point is very good, and I’m going to call my mum and tell her I didn’t screw up my life joining this industry. Cool? Cool.

Anyway, Edison’s data point here is excerpted from the much larger Infinite Dial 2016 study, scheduled to be released later this week. The study comes out a partnership between Edison Research and Triton Digital, a digital audio technology and advertising company. I’ll write it up on next week’s Hot Pod.

Midroll tightens its brand. Scripps-owned Midroll Media is sunsetting its Wolfpop podcast network this week. Wolfpop was previously branded as Midroll’s pop culture-oriented owned-and-operated content arm curated by comedian Paul Scheer — as opposed the company’s flagship comedy-oriented Earwolf brand. (Yeah, it’s a little confusing, which is probably why we’re seeing this consolidation, I imagine).

Ten out of Wolfpop’s 13 podcasts will now live under the Earwolf umbrella. The three shows that will not continue their relationships with Midroll are Rotten Tomatoes, Picking Favorites, and Off Camera with Sam Jones. The company also announced that Hello From the Magic Tavern, a well loved and utterly weird podcast previously supported by the Chicago Podcast Cooperative, is joining the network.

Midroll chief content officer Chris Bannon made these announcements on the Earwolf forums yesterday, citing that “this change is a way for us to make Earwolf a bigger, better, and more inclusive network.”

I reached out to Bannon, who previously served as WNYC’s vice president of content development and production, and asked whether we’d be seeing any news programming coming out of Earwolf anytime soon. “I’ll certainly be taking a hard look at what we can contribute to our listeners’ needs for smart news programming,” he wrote back. “Right now, it feels as though many of the newsmakers are venturing pretty deeply into the comedy space, though. We will have announcements on the news front soon.”

Coy, Bannon. Very coy.

This development was foreshadowed by a job posting that the company put up last week, which contained the following self-description:

This group, led by our VP of Business Development, identifies and brings aboard great new podcasts and creators for all three of our major lines of business: Midroll, the leader in podcast ad sales; Earwolf, our owned & operated podcast network; and Howl, our premium audio subscription service.

In related Midroll news: the company has also hired Jenny Radelet, who previously served as executive media producer for the launch of Apple’s Beats 1 service, as the managing editor for Howl, the company’s subscription service. She started work yesterday.

Limited-run local journalism. This week, WNYC will kick off There Goes the Neighborhood, a limited-series podcast that’ll explore the topic of gentrification in Brooklyn. I personally get all my New York-related gentrification news from The Awl, but I’m intrigued to see that the show is produced in partnership with The Nation — another example of the swell of collaborations between audio companies and existing publications (see WBUR’s Modern Love, WNYC’s New Yorker Radio Hour, KPCC’s recently concluded The Awards Show Show, and the majority of Panoply’s operating model). The show will run for eight episodes and is hosted by Kai Wright, The Nation’s features editor.

There Goes the Neighborhood is notable to me for two reasons. First, it looks to be a strong piece of local journalism, something I don’t get to see very much of in Podcastland. Sure, it’s local to New York, perhaps the most saturated media market in the world, but still. Secondly, it’s the first major audio project that features the involvement of Rebecca Carroll, who joined WNYC last October as a producer of special projects about race in New York City.

“I’m here to generate ideas,” Carroll told me last Friday, when I asked about her role within the station. “We’re experiencing a moment right now in American culture where our most famous public intellectual is Ta-Nehisi Coates, where we have the #BlackLivesMatters movement, Black Twitter, and an election that comes down to the black vote. It’s a moment where blackness and black culture is being listened to, and my aim is to wrest that moment and harness it in a way that can be fanned back out into the most creative, innovative, interesting life-changing way.”

There Goes The Neighborhood is scheduled to debut tomorrow, March 9. A teaser for the show is up already.

An indie label comes alive. Night Vale Presents, the new indie podcast label — that’s what I’m calling it, guys, just roll with it, come on — founded by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the creators of the wildly popular Welcome to Night Vale podcast, is publishing its first title today. The show, Alice Isn’t Dead, is an audio drama written by Fink, and it’s scheduled to play out across 10 biweekly episodes.

Alice is, in a lot of ways, quintessential Night Vale. It shares its predecessor’s particular brand of creepiness — that is, juxtaposing the banal with thick, slabs of horror — and, like Night Vale, Alice displays Fink’s fascination with Americana. Where Night Vale is a love letter to small-town America, Alice is a meditation on the expansive, desolate imagery of the desert highways that make up the vast middle of the country. I’ve heard cuts of the first two episodes, and I really, really like ’em.

Night Vale Presents was conceived out a logistical necessity. Fink and Cranor had wanted to develop more projects beyond their core show, and built Night Vale Presents to be a framework that supports them. “We don’t have any plans to try to grow it into an empire or start taking tech funding or any of that,” Fink told me over email. “What we do hope to do is keep making new podcasts, both our own and works by other artists who haven’t worked in the podcast space before.”

On iTunes, part one. So, the most common inquiry I get from Hot Pod readers overwhelmingly comes in the form of a gripe: How, exactly, do the iTunes charts work? (The second most common inquiry, for the curious: How much does so-and-so make? That’s…I don’t know what to say about that. Leaving that for another day.)

It’s a question I try to stay away from, for a simple reason: I don’t think it’s something that should be fixated upon. Sure, 70 percent of podcast listening happens through iTunes or the native iOS Podcasts app (or so we’re told — it’s impossible to verify, frankly, given the immature state of podcast measurement). But there are many, many other avenues for podcast creators to reach potential new audiences that haven’t been adequately utilized, including basic stuff like search and social. And it benefits the medium as a whole if more creators leaned harder into non-iTunes avenues. Think about it: Attempts to convert audiences through the iTunes platform is a play to win already well worn, probably maxed-out podcast audiences, and if every podcast creator assumes a strategy with iTunes — the platform in general, the charts in specific — at the core, then every podcast creator is essentially competing for the very same pool of ears.

So that’s where my head was at. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that there may something to be gained by really thinking through the theory and context of the iTunes charts, and asking the question: How do the charts shape the space? But in order to do that, I’d first have to try to understand how they work in the first place.

Which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do over the past couple of weeks.

At this point, I’m going to lay down two core hypotheses, and I’m going to argue for their theoretical fidelity by disclosing that they’re informed by a combination of these things: a survey I recently ran among Hot Pod newsletter subscribers (I pulled 18 representative responses that you can view here), conversations with many, many, many podcast creators, stuff published by other podcast folks who have conferred with iTunes reps in the past, and drawing from my own experience with my old day-job employer. iTunes reps, understandably, declined to publicly comment.

My hypotheses are as follows:

1. The charts are particularly biased towards new subscriptions, and to some extent interactions with the iTunes link and engagements through reviews. Which makes sense: iTunes, like Facebook and every other platform that actively benefits from keeping users within its ecosystem, is incentivized to maximize engagements. Thus, achieving half a million downloads outside iTunes won’t reward a show as much as getting that same number in iTunes — and so on.

2. The charts are designed chiefly as a discovery tool, and it performs its duty by identifying and rewarding podcasts with a sense of momentum. Thus, what’s rewarded is relative positive change — getting an additional 1,000 interactions on top of a 10,000 interaction base (say, subscriptions) will send you up quicker than an additional 1,000 on top of 100,000. Again, this makes sense: If the charts were designed to display a power ranking of the most successful shows, then the Top 10 placements would simply never change, with the biggest shows standing to just keep getting bigger. And because iTunes is fully incentivized to provide a chart that, well, actually provides value to users to keep them on the platform, they’d need to rely on a discovery mechanism that allows for the top chart placements to constantly change. In a lot of ways, the charts are actually pretty democratic.

These two hypotheses don’t explain the charts in totality (nothing could, really, other than the algorithm-turned-sentient), but I believe them to be strong starting points to understand the charts. In sum: The charts are designed for discovery, but the engine they are built upon are iTunes interactions — and so podcasts move up because they engender more iTunes-driven subscriptions and downloads, because moving up is a form of reward. Once you settle into that, some things begin to make sense. It’s how you get a Disney enthusiast podcast in the top 5 between Serial and Alice Isn’t Dead — as it was positioned at 4 p.m. ET on March 4. It’s also how you get a parodic sports talk radio podcast sitting on the top spot in that same time period, even though it’s only loaded with a preview. (The prescriptive here is fairly clear: if you wanna play the charts game, optimize your marketing for iTunes interactions. Didn’t want to point it out, but what the hell I’ve already gone this far.)

And here’s where we get back to my original query: What effect does this particular chart system have on the podcasting space?

As my inbox suggests, it generates a lot of angst. I’d argue that feeling comes out of an interpretation that the iTunes podcast charts should serve as a mechanism that adequately signals or communicates a podcast’s value or worth. Which is an understandable interpretation to hold because (and here’s where I make a sweeping overgeneralization) charts are typically designed as tools to signal value.

And that’s the thing: That’s not what the iTunes charts is designed to do. It was designed to optimize for engagement on its platform, and not to provide a direct and clear representation of what’s valuable. (Although the rocketing up of a podcast on the charts does indicate a kind of value — it’s just we’re getting a proxy value.) But there’s a strong tendency to read iTunes as a prime arbiter of value because, well, we don’t have anything else.

Absent other means of context or evaluation, a singular chart of this nature leads to a muddled representation of the podcasting landscape, as it renders any act of interpreting relative value between podcasts almost impossible. And this provides a poor feedback loop for podcast creators, because a big part of understanding the health of your show is knowing how it stacks against other shows.

But here’s the other thing: I don’t perceive this as a story about the problem with iTunes — as far as I’m concerned, there is no problem with iTunes, because iTunes gotta iTunes. Rather, it’s a story about the medium’s larger problem of being to know itself, and the fact that the main way the industry does is dependent on a single, and incredible incomplete, point of view.

Okay, so I’m running out of space right now, and I wanted to talk about two more things: how the iTunes charts impact the relationship between podcast creators and advertisers, and what market opportunities are baked into situation. We’ll start with the former next week.

Relevant bits:

  • “How Politico’s ‘Off Message’ Podcast Is Rising Above Site’s Staff Departures.” A winning combination of strong booking…and loose lips. (The Wrap)
  • “No More Car Talk as WBEZ Turns More Airtime over to Podcasts.” Something’s going on at Ben Calhoun’s Navy Pier operation. (Chicago Magazine)
  • And while we’re on the subject of Nick Quah hobby horses: Recode is probably going to continue expanding their podcast offerings. I buzz with excitement. (CNN Money)
  • “Facebook Messenger Adds Music, Starting With Spotify’s Song Sharing.” All the potential around messaging that you’re already excited about, now with more audio! (TechCrunch)
  • Amazon rolls out two alternate versions of their Echo product, including a puck-sized model designed to latch onto non-Amazon speakers and turn them into voice-based gateways to the Internet. In case you’re new to this column, I’m personally very pro-Amazon Echo as far as its potential for non-visual — read: audio-oriented — computing. As a person who’s morbidly afraid of losing his eyesight, I’m all about that. (The Verge)

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