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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grab your space suits, fellas.

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

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

Public radio genes run deep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip of the hat, Louisville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

Bites:

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

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

Hot Pod: Gimlet risks its image as scrappy and transparent by mishandling a show cancellation

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-one, published October 11, 2016.

Growing Up Gimlet. Okay, there’s a lot baked into this story and I’m still processing, so this isn’t an argument so much as me thinking through this. Let’s get to it.

Podcastland was lit aflame last Thursday when Starlee Kine, the creative force behind the highly popular Gimlet podcast Mystery Show, published a note explaining the show’s extended silence since wrapping up its first season last July. Kine explained that she had been let go “without warning” by Gimlet in April and spent the past few months figuring out a way forward. “I’d been having trouble figuring out the new season — second seasons can be tricky — and so I’d gone away, to work on an episode,” she wrote. “The day I returned, Alex told me the show was unsustainable.” (The note was published both on Kine’s personal Medium account and on the Mystery Show Facebook page, which has since been deleted.)

Gimlet published a statement of its own shortly after. The statement was vague, but it confirmed that the company was no longer participating in Mystery Show’s development. “Mystery Show is an ambitious production and Starlee has an uncompromising vision for the show, which is what makes it so great,” the statement read. “However, these factors combined make Mystery Show unsustainable to produce and publish on a consistent basis.” The company noted that it’s still in discussions with Kine on how she may proceed to produce the show independently. In a recording appended to the StartUp episode released later Thursday evening, Gimlet cofounder Alex Blumberg declined to discuss the issue further, maintaining that some things “need to remain private.”

Pretty scandalous stuff for this still-small podcast industry — so much so that it was written up by more general publications like Vulture, Vox, and Wired. And there’s a lot about this announcement that’s publicly unclear: why Kine’s announcement came out last Thursday, what happened in April, what the actual situation is, and so on. Public response to the news has been fairly negative towards Gimlet for the most part, and in the intervening days, two dominant narratives have come to define the story: (1) Kine was shortchanged by Gimlet, and (2) letting go of the show is a strategic misstep for the budding media giant.

That second narrative is, frankly, more interesting to deconstruct here compared to the first, which has significant potential to devolve into analytically unproductive schoolyard gossip. Whatever happened between Kine and the company is theirs to internally litigate; for what it’s worth, I reached out to Kine for comment, but she declined to extend the issue beyond her statement, and while I was able to discuss the situation with several people familiar with the matter, both inside and outside the company, none were willing to speak on the record. So no, I’m not going to be the one who presents the tick-tock here, but if you’re into that, there appear to be a few other publications pursuing the story — based on some inquiries that hit my inbox yesterday — so you might still be in luck.

The more significant question for me is: What does this mean for Gimlet as a business?

I don’t think the company will suffer much — or indeed, at all — from a revenue perspective. Just looking at the structure of the show, it’s highly unlikely that Mystery Show was ever much of a moneymaker for the company. The first season was made up of six episodes that ran sporadically across a two-month period, and even if you account for an exceptionally strong download rate during its initial run, a fairly strong long tail in the succeeding months, and a comparatively high CPM (set before the show actually premiered, I might add), the show’s very short run automatically keeps its overall revenue potential fairly low. As part of a larger portfolio, Mystery Show would likely have been less financially important compared to the company’s other continuously-publishing properties like StartUp, whose seasonal releases are probably balanced against super-premium CPMs justified by a high-value audience segment, and Reply All, which operates on an industrious publishing schedule and was revealed in a recent StartUp episode to have enjoyed consistent audience growth since launching in November 2014.

Mystery Show’s main contribution to Gimlet was the fact it was deeply loved. It drew critical praise, a star-studded following, and tremendous buzz. The show, after all, scored Kine an appearance on Conan, and it accumulated an exceptionally strong, ardent, and loud fanbase.

And that goodwill, I imagine, is understood to provide a halo effect for the rest of the company’s brand. But Gimlet’s core advertising-driven business model, whose financial health depends on consistent and continuous publishing, values all listeners as equal, and given that Gimlet has no current way to further monetize its audience beyond advertising — and no, I don’t consider the company’s membership play to be an effective secondary channel just yet — Mystery Show’s intense fandom doesn’t translate into a real business case in the company. And while the success of the first season may well have sown the conditions for greater revenue potential for its second season (by virtue of a higher earned CPM), the show still has to be produced on time in a way that make sense within the context of the production costs, which continues to grow as more time is spent on its production. As we know now, the project ultimately suffered from high production volatility, which some companies would probably still consider slogging through if they perceived the potential of, at least, a proportional return on the other side of the investment.

But Mystery Show, as an investment, never really had a shot of generating a strong enough revenue return given its structure, which raises the further question: Why take the risk in the first place? And why continue supporting the show until April — bearing the costs of keeping Kine on payroll, even as the company began to feel that it may not meet its production timeline (which must be enforced due to advertiser commitments)?

The most plausible reason, in my mind, is that the company, well, believed in the art. If we believe this to be the case, then what we have is a company that made an artistic choice that initially paid off but eventually backfired. Which may look naive now, given the circumstances, and perhaps a little irresponsible, given its larger reality as a venture-backed media company that’s accountable for revenue and audience growth, but I’d personally defend it in the overall scheme of things, because I’d much rather media companies — venture-backed and otherwise — take risks occasionally in the service of art (or the public, as in the case of journalistic operations). What I find much less defensible is the way the company deeply mishandled communications in the aftermath of last Thursday’s events, which is a mistake that potentially compromised its core brand dynamics and value.

No two ways about this: Gimlet should have done a better job getting in front of this story and managing the fallout that this incident has brought upon its relationship with its audience. At this writing, the company still has not adequately addressed the concerns that linger on the minds of a good chunk of its audience and fans or even make them anything beyond being blocked out. By skipping that step, the company has drawn into question one of its biggest appeals to its community: a sense of radical, authentic transparency.

There’s a very strong possibility that the company is fully aware of all this and decided to endure that tradeoff anyway. I really have no idea whether this is the case, but if so, it makes the entire situation ever more interesting — and tragic — and it is here, I’d say, that I’m most intrigued about what actually happened behind the scenes. (Though I’m not that intrigued.)

Nevertheless, last Thursday illustrated this breakdown to its fullest extent: Kine’s post dropped hours before Gimlet was set to publish its latest season of its flagship show StartUp. The brilliance of that podcast, which earned Gimlet its initial acclaim when it debuted in late 2014, was premised on a spirit of confessional authenticity, which really shined when it kept the focus on itself. As a listener, you felt like you were friends with these people; you felt like you were glimpsing at the truth; you felt like you were involved in their lives. Gimlet’s blanket unwillingness to attend to this very visible fallout rendered last Thursday’s episode hollow, and perhaps irrevocably undermined the polite suspension of belief that has long distracted you from the actual truth: that even as pieces of nonfiction, these people are still characters on a show, and as much as it feels like you know them, you never truly will.

Perhaps more crucially, this incident also highlighted a fundamental tension within Gimlet as a company that it has never properly resolved: the company actively cultivates a feeling of goodwill associated with being small, scrappy, and independent — a carryover, one would imagine, from its public radio DNA — while at the same time enjoying the advantages of being an empire-building, venture-backed, for-profit business. The company has, in a lot of ways, never really had to publicly confront the burdens, traps, and responsibilities that come with being big and venture-backed, and now it’s doing just that.

Mystery Show’s conscious uncoupling with Gimlet probably won’t matter much in the larger scale of how podcasting plays out in the years to come. But it does mark a public loss of innocence for Gimlet. The company now shuffles out of adolescence, grappling not just with growing pains, but with all the changes those pains bring to its identity. It can no longer be what it once was, and must now fully reckon with whatever it is it wants to be.

Meanwhile, the rest of us in the industry will have to digest how, I guess, we’re all kinda sorta growing up too. *shudders*

The Sarah Awards, part deux. Ann Heppermann, head honcho of the Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Awards that saw its inaugural prize ceremony take place back in April, informs me that preparations for the second ceremony are currently underway and, more importantly, that its website has been redesigned. Among its improvements and additions, the site now also sports reviews of and essays about audio dramas, which is a piece of news that, I suppose, should count as good timing after my whole warble-garble last week about podcast criticism requiring the development of whole new business models.

It looks like the model Heppermann is using for her commissions essentially amounts to patronage. According to her re-welcome note on the Sarah Awards website, those critical essays and reviews are funded by a “generous contribution” from Panoply — which would probably provoke some sort of conflict of interest concern if the reviews were meant to play a kind of consumer-guide role, except that it doesn’t seem like it. The Sarahs, above all, assumes an advocacy role in the podcast ecosystem — something closer in spirit to a trade lobbying or consumer awareness group, perhaps — which is an interpretation that compels me to further wonder what, exactly, is the business of criticism in the first place.

Anyhoo, the next Sarah Awards ceremony is set to take place on March 28, 2017. Submissions for the awards will open sometime this fall, so keep your eye on the website. Until then, occupy yourself with the site’s Very, Very, Short, Short Stories Contest, which is now taking entries.

Radiotopia Fundraiser No. 2. I’m being told that the podcast collective is kicking off its second annual fundraiser this morning. Recall that this whole direct-listener-support thing is fundamental to the collective’s hypothesis. Check out their website for more information.

Quick and Dirty origins. D.C.-based reporter and friend-of-the-newsletter Simon Owens published a great profile of the Quick and the Dirty Tips podcast network, an on-demand audio operation that first came to life ten years ago when Mignon Fogarty launched its flagship show, Grammar Girl, in June 2006.

The network is really interesting for a number of reasons: It has a distinct focus on educational programming that’s baked into a broad adoption of the advice format. It’s an example of a diversified, multi-platform business built around audio as an anchor of sorts. And it has a unique partnership with Macmillan Publishers — one that sees the former play a talent incubation/marketing role for the latter, and the latter play a business development role for the former. The network reportedly generates about 2 million downloads per month with 18 shows in its portfolio, according to the profile.

A couple of thoughts:

  • Might be just me, but I see a really strong parallel between Quick and Dirty Tips and the Atlanta-based HowStuffWorks network (which I profiled last month, by the way). Both are networks that were born relatively early on in the podcast format’s history, and both pursued growth and self-sustainability through the late 2000s. That the two networks ended up adopting a multi-platform strategy as a way to diversify their revenue bases and further build out their brands is probably not coincidental. But what does appear coincidental to me is a common focus on educational programming between the two networks. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what this tells us about the relationship between form and content, but I think there’s a broader story here about “sexy growth” (for lack of better term, my deepest apologies) and not-so sexy growth.”
  • If there’s a huge lesson to draw from Quick and Dirty Tips as a case study, I think it’s this: Your list of potential allies is always bigger than you think it is, especially if you look in non-obvious places. So, if you’re an independent operator starting your show or a network — or indeed, if you run a smaller public radio station somewhere — it’s worth considering partnerships with companies beyond the audio vertical.

Anyway, check out Owens’ writeup, and do subscribe to his Tinyletter if you’re into media analysis stuff, which I’m pretty sure you are.

Lore is successfully heading to television. Amazon has picked up the podcast, whose development was first announced back in April, with a mid-2017 debut schedule, according to Deadline. Other podcast-to-television projects still on my personal watchlist: Limetown, StartUp, and My Brother, My Brother, and Me.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn. Chris Morrow, head of the Loud Speakers Network (which is the home of, among other fine shows, The Read and Tax Season), writes in to tell me that they’re launching a new show this week: InsecuriTea, a show that recaps the Issa Rae HBO show “Insecurity.” The recap podcast is a co-production with HBO.

Morrow continues: “[This] comes on the heels of some additional branded content: Rich Friend, a fashion and music show with Avion Tequila featuring The New Yorker’s Matthew Trammell and GQ’s Style Guy Mark Anthony Green, and Colorful Lives, featuring career advice for African-American women sponsored by State Farm featuring Lip Service’s Angela Yee, Friend Zone’s Fran and Tatiana King from Fan Bros.”

Bites:

  • WNYC begins rolling out internships that now pay $11.50/hour as opposed its previous $12/day rate. This comes after a successful petition campaign from a group called Fair Trade Radio that took place in April. (WNYC Careers)
  • “…a core user expectation [of podcasts] is one of interoperability, where as a listener I know that I can listen to my favorite shows in whichever podcast app I choose, whether that’s the latest paid app or the Podcasts app pre-installed on my iPhone. And right now, the best way to enable that is to follow the rules and publish RSS.” RadioPublic’s chief architect makes the case for RSS, along with some helpful code. (Medium)
  • On the kids’ podcast front: NPR is playing around with an experimental podcast for kids and is looking for feedback. And upstart Blobfish Radio launched a “serialized mystery podcast for kids” called The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel.
  • Remember that tech podcast Bloomberg’s Michael Shane was talking about when I profiled the company’s audio strategy recently? It’s out now. (Bloomberg)
  • Mashable has a profile up on “Jason Flom’s Wrongful Conviction,” a show that comes out of the budding Revolver network. (Mashable)
  • “As accuracy of speech recognition goes from 95% to 99%, all of us…will go from barely using it to using it all the time.” The Economist snapshots the market opportunity in “smart speakers” or audio-first computing. (The Economist)
  • This is a fascinating read: “Podcasting from Prison.” (California Sunday Magazine)

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.

Hot Pod: Will the next wave of audio advertising make podcasts sound like (yuck) commercial radio?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue eighty-nine, published September 27, 2016.

Panoply opens a London office. The Slate Group’s audio arm announced yesterday that it was expanding into the good ol’ United Kingdom. Specifically, the company is opening a new production office in London that will “facilitate closer collaboration with U.K.-based audio talent.” Ryan Dilley, a BBC veteran, has been hired to lead the new operation.

Here’s the most straightforward way to think about this: Panoply intends to do in the U.K. whatever it does here, including original and partner programming, the cultivation of a U.K.-based network of talent, and the recruitment/aggregation of local podcasts into its network.

This move also puts Panoply in a good position to do two things: first, to grow a bigger advertising presence that would allow them to monetize U.K. listeners on their existing American shows (up until this point, it’s basically money that’s been left on the table), and second, to challenge digital audio companies with British operations that have spent the past few years making in-roads into the more lucrative U.S. market, like Audioboom and Acast.

Andy Bowers, Panoply’s chief content officer (and my old boss, by the way), told me that U.K. ad sales aren’t the primary motivation for this expansion. “This is about talent,” he wrote, adding that they have already been engaged with targeted U.K.-only ad sales using their new Megaphone platform. I was also told to expect Panoply’s first slate of U.K. programming to roll out early next year.

Speaking of which, I should consider opening up a Euro Hot Pod bureau.

Keep an eye on this: Nielsen is working on a software development kit (SDK) that will, among other things, cater to the measurement of podcasts, according to a report by Radio Ink. They’ve been testing the kits with ESPN, and the company is “working towards having a syndicated service out there in the marketplace sometime in 2017.”

An SDK-approach is one of a few ways to deal with the industry’s measurement gap. But Nielsen will face similar political problems of adoption that plague companies like Podtrac — although it is a neutral third party. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard skepticism over an SDK-approach from a number of execs in the space, so we’ll see where this goes.

Midroll’s live intent. The end of October will see the inaugural Now Hear This festival in Anaheim, Calif., which will mark Midroll’s first foray into Lollapalooza-style multi-partner live programming. Now Hear This is set to feature shows from both within the Midroll ecosystem — that is, the Earwolf network and its universe of third-party ad sales clients — and without, boasting shows like Radiotopia’s Criminal and NPR’s How I Built This on the lineup. (I’m told that most of these external partners are paid an upfront fee for participation; no revenue shares are involved.)

Midroll is not the first podcast company to organize such an event. Indeed, this past weekend saw the L.A. Podcast Festival, and the Vulture Festival this past May also included a solid block of live podcast tapings. But Now Hear This is notable in how it reflects Midroll’s ambitions to diversify its revenue base. When the company announced Lex Friedman as its new chief revenue officer earlier this month, an explicit mention of a deeper focus on live events in the press release caught my eye.

“We don’t expect that, in the near term, live events will be as big as ads or subscription,” Friedman said when we spoke over the phone yesterday. “But it’s another way for us to diversify, and it’s the closest thing we have to kick off a network effect.” Friedman tells me that a festival like Now Hear This not only brings in ticket sales and sponsorship revenue, but the live tapings create additional material that can be served in Howl, the company’s premium subscription play. (Speaking of sponsorship: Casper and Mack Weldon, both veteran podcast buyers, are sponsoring the festival, with live show ad-integrations that will go beyond on-stage host-reads. More sponsors are expected to be announced soon.)

Midroll intends to produce more live shows of individual Earwolf podcasts in 2017, and Friedman hopes to collaborate with his third-party ad sales clients on live events as well. It’s an ambitious vision, one that I assume is backed by a long E.W. Scripps runway.

“We’re building a media empire, Nick,” he said, before bursting into terrifying laughter.

There’s been a misunderstanding, asserted Art19 cofounder Sean Carr when we spoke over the phone last week. He tells me that too many people have been conflating dynamic ad insertion technology with an automatic flood of programmatic radio-style prerecorded ads. One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, he argues, pointing out that many of today’s production conventions — the ones that contribute to the medium’s identity of “intimacy” — don’t actually have to change. “Most host-read ads are recorded separately from the conversation anyway, and edited in after the fact,” he added.

For the record, I’ve come to agree with Carr’s position. (That view has been fleshed out across previous Hot Pods.) But I’d say that the anxiety that drives this conflation remains very real, and that Carr felt the need to reach out on this suggests it remains top-of-mind among many emotionally invested the space. There is now, after all, very little that would structurally prevent the inflow of eardrum-assaulting radio-style ads — a state of affairs that could spoil the medium’s identity for listeners trying it out for the first time.

“That anxiety will probably go away with better data,” Carr said. I’m inclined to agree, though there will always be a gap between where we are right now and a place where we’re have that abundance of appropriate, agreed-upon data. Not for nothing, but transition periods almost always suck — whether we acknowledge that or not.

Anyway, Carr also tells me that his team is working on some research that he hopes will increase advertiser confidence. Watch out for them.

Some notes on the border between publishers and podcasts. Last week saw news that Actuality, the podcast collaboration between Quartz and APM’s Marketplace, is coming to a close. The show first launched last summer and ran for two seasons. According to a joint blog post, the podcast was cancelled due to a lack of sufficient interest. “We’d rather hit pause now and move on to other experiments,” wrote Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney and Marketplace VP/executive producer Deborah Clark. The podcast averaged 100,000 monthly downloads across the last three months of the show.

“After two seasons, we learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t in podcasting, and produced some strong episodes,” Delaney told me over email last week. He added: “I doubt this will be the last podcast product that Quartz develops.”

APM, for their part, will continue their efforts in these cross-platform partnerships. “Though not all our new podcasts at either Marketplace or APM overall will be in partnership with others, I think many will,” Clark told me. “Our guiding principle is how do we serve our audience better and sometimes that’s best done with other strong partners.”

One such example is Codebreaker, its collaboration with Business Insider, which will drop its second season later this fall. Another project to watch: Historically Black, which is a collaboration between The Washington Post and APM Reports (American Public Media’s documentary unit), which dropped its first episode last Monday.

As one media company shelves its audio ambitions (for now), another finds its runway. Bloomberg Media, the business news behemoth, has found some joy in its on-demand audio operations over its past year of experimentation. Michael Shane, a Bloomberg operative who was recently promoted to the position of global head of digital innovation, told me last week that the company’s young podcast arm is now a seven-figure business.

Bloomberg’s on-demand audio offerings are chiefly made up of subject-specific shows built around key reporters in the newsroom. Examples include, but are not limited to: Odd Lots (finance, featuring Joe Weisenthal and Tracy Alloway), Material World (retail broadly speaking, featuring Jenny Kaplan and Lindsey Rupp), and Game Plan (the workplace, featuring Rebecca Greenfield and Francesca Levy). The company is adding a tech podcast to its network next month, and is on the hunt for a San Francisco-based producer to handle duties on that show. (It’s worth noting that, shockingly, the team has only been composed of four producers up to this point. “It’s a lean team,” Shane said. “Which is great, because we like to do things profitably around here.”)

Shane’s team is also investigating potential collaborations with the company’s long-running 24-hour broadcast radio division. The most prominent example of this is Bloomberg Surveillance, a typically three-hour broadcast program that is being repackaged as highlights to serve podcast listeners. “It would be crazy of us to build a digital audio strategy that didn’t involve Bloomberg Radio,” Shane said. He also noted that Surveillance currently hits six-figure audiences per month, and that the show’s ad inventory has been sold out through 2017, with Bank of America as the sponsor.

When I asked about CPMs, Shane informs me that company sells at premium rates across all platforms — and that audio, certainly, is no exception. He also did pontificate, briefly, on the industry’s expectations of fallings CPMs as the basic ad formats get commoditized over the long run. “I spend a lot of time wondering: What’s next? What can Bloomberg offer [advertisers] around digital audio that’s more than an ad read?” Shane said.

“I heard someone say once that the business model for podcasts is to be beloved,” he continued. “As long as we can keep being audience-first and not squander that goodwill, this can be a great business for us over the long term.”

A sneak peek at RadioPublic. Jake Shapiro and the RadioPublic team have been keeping busy. After the crew of PRX alums announced their new venture earlier this summer, they’ve been hard at work on the listening app that will mark their first foray into product market. Shapiro was kind enough to invite me to take a look at a very basic prototype of the app. Some notes from our conversation:

  • The team intends to preserve and advance the medium’s open nature — which is to say, it will eschew a YouTube or Spotify-style closed ecosystem. “We just don’t think that’s the right way to do things,” Shapiro said, adding that the app’s experience will be built on top of open RSS feeds while being focused on serving listeners with a much better user experience than what exists now. That user experience is driven by a goal of “helping listeners make a more informed choice,” as Shapiro puts it.
  • While those ideas were understandable in the abstract, I had trouble visualizing the significance of the product even with the prototype in front of me. Shapiro provided an analogy to Flipboard, the social magazine app that, in many ways, serves as a user-friendly portal through which mobile users could manage their experience navigating the unruly web while respecting its open quality.
  • When I asked Shapiro about publisher outreach, he told me that, while the app is being built to provide value autonomously from any required publisher participation, the rise of dynamic ad insertion technology across an emerging class of hosting platforms necessitates some “technical handshakes” in order for both parties to properly benefit from the experience. Publishers are encouraged to get in touch.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the small team known as Tiny Garage Labs — founded by Planet Money alum Steve Henn along with former longtime Netflix operatives Steve McLendon and John Ciancutti — has been kicking up some noise as well. Last Thursday, Henn published a semi-manifesto and call-for-collaborators on Medium, and the team also scored a chunky Nieman Lab mini-profile that fleshes out their general product direction with 60dB, Tiny Garage Labs’ first market offering.

Here’s my read in a nutshell: It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to lump 60dB in with either your basic podcatcher play or a “Netflix for audio”-minded play like Midroll’s Howl. (In this case, it is prudent to not read too much into the team’s Netflix lineage.) Rather, given Tiny Garage Lab’s outsized focus on short-form audio — a perspective that views individual segments as the atomic unit of content, as opposed to the episode — 60dB would best be categorized against something like the Amazon Echo’s Flash Briefing experiments — which is to say, it is a wholly new, and entirely separate, product category.

ESPN Audio’s 30 for 30 team. Senior producer Jody Avirgan has announced the team that will take on the brand’s well-loved 30 for 30 adaptation into audio. They are: Rose Eveleth, of Flash Forward; Julia Henderson, formerly of WNYC’s Studio 360; Andrew Mambo, formerly of WNYC’s great Radio Rookies project; Katie McAuliffe, formerly of WNPR and a former ESPN music assistant; and Marcus Anderson, who comes in without a radio background (which is fantastic, IMHO).

Another quick ESPN-related tidbit, for those interested: According to an Awful Announcing blog post, “FiveThirtyEight podcasts across the board were downloaded over 7.8 million times in August alone, a 422 percent increase from February.”

Bites:

  • WNYC has had a busy week: it rolled out The United States of Anxiety, their second collaboration with The Nation (the first being the excellent There Goes the Neighborhood). The station also welcomed the second season of 2 Dope Queens. I’m told season one drew “millions of listens.”
  • Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez writes in to let me know that the network expects to hit 8 million downloads by the end of the month. The network is currently spread across 14 shows, with two originals. They’re hosted on the Art19 platform.
  • Radiotopia recruits The West Wing Weekly. The addition is said to allow the collective to “explore a new content direction, and evolve as a network.” (PRX)
  • Speaking of PRX, the company announced a new initiative last week called Project Catapult, where it will work with five chosen stations over a 20-week program to develop a sustainable local podcast strategy. (Current)
  • Have you checked out Audible’s Channels recently? The lineup now features what appears to be several new additions. Note, also, how the presentation flattens different content types, from original shows to comedy to article readouts. (Audible)
  • Speaking of article readouts, iTunes apparently is getting ready to promote a similar type of articles-read-aloud content. This is probably a nothingburger in terms of the larger questions of what this means for the podcast industry, a good chunk of which are crossing their fingers for access to their listening data, but hey, if you’re into Apple Kremlinology, this is a data point just for you. (TechCrunch)
  • An adapted version of the Politico Playbook, the political news website’s flagship newsletter, is now being distributed in audio form over the Amazon Echo’s Alexa platform. The audio version adopts the “90-second flash briefing” model, and drops daily starting yesterday. (Washingtonian)
  • Two reads for the public radio-oriented: “Great journalism alone won’t guarantee public radio’s survival” (Current) and “This American Fight” (Fast Company)

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.

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)

Is the next front in podcast innovation hardware?

Show business and Art19. The news broke last week that 21st Century Fox, one of the Murdoch empire’s many tentacles, has invested in an upcoming podcast network called Wondery. The network is headed up by one Hernan Lopez, who was the CEO of Fox International Channels until recently, when the corporation’s globally focused programming unit was restructured out of existence.

The size of Fox’s investment is unclear, though you can draw your own conclusions from a Bloomberg report stating the network “has more than $1 million to work with,” a sum that reportedly comes from both the investment and Lopez’s own money. What exactly will make up Wondery’s future content offerings is anybody’s guess, with The Hollywood Reporter offering broad strokes that the network will “create and curate original, scripted, and unscripted programming.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that “curate” is roughly a synonym for content acquisition, so if there are any podcasters out in the audience, ready your pitches.

One thing you should note about Wondery is its partnership with California-based tech company Art19, which Variety notes will help the network with “distribution infrastructure and dynamic ad insertion.” Yep, dynamic ad insertion — it’s a direct competitor to Acast, Panoply, and the solutions currently adopted by public radio stations like WNYC and WBEZ that we often discuss in this column.

Long-time podcast watchers will know that Art19 has been around for a while. (There’s a handy Daily Dot article from 2012 that serves as a great snapshot of the company at the time.) Art19 is responsible for powering pods like those coming out of the Feral Audio network — home of Harmontown! — and DGital Media‘s Comedy Voices Network.

The company was founded in 2011, when it envisioned itself as an end-to-end services provider offering everything from ad sales support to distribution. “When we first designed this company, we thought we had to do everything,” Art19 co-founder and CEO Sean Carr told me. This was a function of there simply being not enough players attacking other problems in the space around the same time. It’s hard to focus on a specific problem when there’s no ecosystem of effort to begin with.

In recent years, as more money and more companies flowed into the space, Art19 began to focus on being a technology company. Its core product involves publishing tools akin to Soundcloud and LibSyn, which will allow — as we’ve discussed — for dynamic ad insertion and ad-serving technology reminiscent of AdsWizz.

Eventually, the company plans to take on measurement and discovery. With regard to the former, Carr referred to shifting podcasting out of RSS feeds and into API-connected services, and talked a bit about something his team is calling “Art19DB,” or the IMDB for audio. There’s quite a bit to this, but I’ll let your imagination roam free here for now.

So that’s Art19, a technology that I’ve long overlooked but shouldn’t have. I have a feeling we’re going to hear quite a bit from them in the months to come.

Anyway, back to Wondery: what, exactly, are we seeing here? What’s particularly interesting about Lopez is his background in large-scale entertainment media operations — this is certainly a man oriented toward growth and scale, with considerable history in both departments. But how does that relate to the current podcasting landscape? My gut thinks we’re bound to see something closer to CBS’s Play.it network than a more bespoke operation like Gimlet or Radiotopia: a reliance on public personalities, talk radio formats, and higher content volumes; less a cultivation of new audio aesthetics, and more the adaptation of existing radio programming. That may well be a good thing, as such a genre opens itself up to be an entry point for a different kind of audience.

The Wondery website is scheduled to go live sometime this week. As for its shows, Variety notes that the company’s goal is to roll out its first offering by spring, while Bloomberg pegs those plans closer to summer.

Other fronts in audio innovation. I’ve been thinking a lot more about Amazon lately. Not in relation to Audible, mind you — although I do think a lot about that company, its subscription model, and its already robust audience penetration base — but rather, about the Amazon Echo. In case you’re unfamiliar with the thing, the Echo is a tubular object that’s a sly cross between a wireless speaker and a voice-controlled computer. It’s fairly futuristic in conceit; you can ask the Echo to describe the weather, to play your local public radio station, to make grocery lists. It’s a non-traditional way to interface with the Internet — not through keyboard, mouse, and monitor, but through structured conversation.

Recently, Amazon announced that it’s going to release a portable, smaller, cheaper version of the Echo. It was also revealed that the Echo is now able to read your Kindle books aloud, although navigation and the overall experience are limited for now.

So far, the bulk of conversation about technological solutions to podcast discovery and expansion have largely revolved around conversations about social: audio virality (or lack thereof), Facebook’s experiments with NPR, clipping and shareability (which seemed to dominate the This American Life audio hackathon last year). But what if audio shareability, a concern about the dynamics of how audio moves through the digital media ecosystem, is absolute peanuts compared to concerns about structures, availabilities/accessibilities, and hardware? After all, as we’ve discussed in the past, one of podcasting’s major and unambiguous tipping points was Apple’s decision to include the native Podcast app on the iPhone by default in the iOS8 update.

I’m not advocating that we pull back from further explorations in social audio. Rather, I think there are other, perhaps even better, fronts to pursue: re-examining the way in which we control and interface with audio in our mobile devices, expanding access points, thinking beyond headphones.

One more thing: in mid-2015, Amazon announced the creation of a $100 million fund to support innovations in artificial intelligence for the Echo. It’s called the “Alexa Fund” (Alexa, by the way, is the Echo’s version of the Apple AI avatar Siri), and the fund is principally concerned with natural language recognition.

Serial changes its publication schedule. Okay, you probably’ve heard this one already. But let’s go through the motions: last Tuesday, the Serial team announced that “new episodes of Season Two will come out every other week, instead of once a week.” In other words, it’s switching to a bi-weekly schedule, unless, of course, like Roman Mars, you take issue with the term “bi-weekly,” given its imprecision. Me, I’m partial to sheer Germanic literalism: “new episode of Season Two to be released every 14 days.”

When I first heard this news — initially through a rumor, then through the email from the Serial team — I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at. Was this an expression of extreme confidence in the audience’s capacity for patience, or some sort of editorial miscalculation?

The second season of Serial has so far struck me as more than a little frustrating. That’s not so much due to the reporting — indeed, the show’s performance remains technically impeccable, and perhaps my frustration is a result of me missing some sort of point. But there’s something about this season that feels as if the show is taking its audience, and all the goodwill it gained (perhaps accidentally) rolling off the first season, for granted. Perhaps it’s the almost leisurely pace of the early episodes — despite the intense and painful pictures they paint — or perhaps it’s the absence of a clear central gambit that goes beyond psychological exploration.

The show’s creators have signaled that the stakes, and the scope, will greatly expand at some point, and I’m looking forward to that, but the decision to further stretch out the release schedule (for good journalistic reason, I’m sure) suggests an assumption that we will return, that we will continue caring over the long-term.

This is where I’m going to walk back on my own critique. I haven’t fully processed my feelings on the show, and I’m very open to the possibility that my response may well be petty — perhaps overly, oh I don’t know, consumeristic. So I’m going to come back to this in a few weeks with a longer, more thought-out reflection. In the meantime, let me know what you think, and I also highly recommend you check out the New York Times’ write-up on the change — it touches briefly on the second season’s lack of buzz, and gives a few numbers. (Five million streams on Pandora! What!)

More presidential election podcasts. In the last edition of Hot Pod, I talked a bit about a suite of relatively new journalistic podcasts that are topically pegged to the current 2016 presidential election cycle. I guess I was on to something, because the past week saw the Huffington Post and Bloomberg Politics launch election-related — or election-adjacent — shows of their own. The new HuffPo show is called “Candidate Confessional,” and it will feature interviews with politicians who’ve run for office, presidential and otherwise, but ultimately lost. (Among the interviewed: one Michelle Bachmann, in case you’re somehow nostalgic for 2012.) For more information about the podcast, here’s Poynter with a write-up.

The two new Bloomberg Politics podcasts are called “Masters in Politics” and “Culture Caucus,” and they’re due to be published on a bi-weekly basis. Interestingly, they extend Bloomberg’s already long list of existing podcasts, which I never knew existed until I started digging into this item a few days ago. Where did these come from? I have no idea how much of a listenership all those podcasts have, but as with most things related to Bloomberg Media, I’ve stopped trying to understand how any of it works because there’s too much money and sometimes the media business makes no sense (#NYValues). In any case, the official Bloomberg announcement post mentioned that the podcasts are available on the Bloomberg Terminal in addition to iTunes and Soundcloud, which I guess is as exclusive a distribution point as you’re ever going to get.

Other news this week:

  • Longest Shortest Time re-launches under Earwolf. (Twitter shout-out)
  • “WNYC is leading public radio’s transition to public podcasting.” (CJR)
  • Did you hear? Audible bought a historic church in New Jersey and will be converting it into new office space. Oo boy. ()
  • Vulture, New York Magazine’s entertainment site, partnered with Earwolf to develop a podcast element for its upcoming festival. (Vulture)
  • First glimpses at Apple TV’s new podcast app. (9 to 5 Mac)
  • “How CBS is trying to get big-name advertisers into podcasts” (Digiday)

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