These are the most important developments in the podcast business so far in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 135, published September 5, 2017.

Programming note! Ah yes, so we are in September! As you might already know, I’m taking a five-issue break from writing Hot Pod, starting next week and back on October 17, to do the Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship in Cambridge (very on-brand, I’d say). But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Hot Pod #content will stop flowing, as I’ll be serving up bonus goodies here and there to those who read Hot Pod as a newsletter. (You can sign up to that here.)

But even as the newsletter churns out extra, the Hot Pod column as you know it will be on ice for a while. So, before the break and ahead of the third annual IAB Podcast Upfront happening later this week (also the NowHearThis Festival, I suppose), I figured this is probably a good time to take stock of the year in podcasting so far, which is, you know, quite a lot. In this issue, you’ll find top-level numbers, the six big things/trends/developments that stood out to me, thoughts about the three most interesting podcast companies, and some news hits before we break for a month and a half.

Let’s jump in.

The year so far. We begin by asking: Just how much has the industry grown over the past year? And do we have a better understanding of the space than we did before? I’ve been keeping these two digits pinned to my notebook:

  • Audience size: 67 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, up 21 percent from 57 million from the year before. The volume of growth between 2017 and 2016 is slightly less than the period immediately preceding it (4 percentage points off a smaller base), which was a source of consternation among some in the podcast community at the time. But as I wrote back when the report first dropped: “We’re still talking 10 million new Americans actively listening to a medium that (a) is still propped up by a barely evolved technological infrastructure, (b) has only seen a few instances of significant capital investment, and (c) still sees its industry power very much under-organized.” Those three things, by the way, have changed a little since I wrote that line. More on that in a bit.
  • Advertising: The industry is expected to top $220 million in podcast advertising revenue by the end of 2017, according to an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) study. The study is the first of its kind, a long-awaited official research effort into a pool of the biggest players in the space — which gives us a floor, at the very least — that’s a marked a step up from that methodologically-fuzzy Bridge Ratings report that’s been floating about the past few years. (Yeah, it’s all totally weird.) The IAB study was also able to give us some valuable historical context: 2016’s podcast ad revenue came in at $119 million, while 2015 came in at $69 million.

I’ll be thinking about how the industry moves forward based on three dimensions:

  • Growth — whether audiences and revenues will continue to grow, obviously;
  • Sustainability — whether companies will meaningfully diversify their revenue streams and whether the industry will see its activities and fortunes spread out across a wide number of companies; and
  • Refinement — whether the ecosystem will improve upon its various inefficiencies, from discovery to measurement to monetization.

Cool. So, with all that out of the way, let’s talk about six big things that’ve stood out to me since January.

[storybreak]

(1) Fundraising uptick. The summer closed with what might have been the loudest month in terms of significant investments in the podcast industry since…well, since I’ve started writing this newsletter in November 2014. August saw a total of four big investments in all (that were publicly disclosed, of course):

  • August 1: Gimlet Media announced a $15 million Series B funding round led by the New York-based Stripes Group, whose portfolio also includes Refinery29, eMarketer, and Blue Apron. Participants in the round also included Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Graham Holdings, Cross Culture Ventures, and Betaworks. Variety had the first writeup.
  • August 3: DGital Media (which would later rebrand as Cadence13) announced that Entercom, the fourth-largest radio broadcaster in the U.S., paid $9.7 million to buy 45 percent of the company. The arrangement was described as an “investment and a strategic partnership” in the press release, and Entercom also signed a “multi-year services agreement under which DGital will dedicate ‘significant resources’ to create on-demand audio content leveraging the broadcaster’s roster of local talent and relationships.”
  • August 23: Art19, the California-based podcast technology company, announced a $7.5 million Series A round led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (BDMI) and DCM Ventures. Other investors in the round included United Talent Agency (!), Gallo Digital, angel investor Zach Coelius, and Array Ventures, according to the press release.
  • August 31: HowStuffWorks, the Atlanta-based veteran podcast company that’s been publishing for almost a decade across multiple parent corporations, announced that it will be spinning out as a new independent company with a $15 million Series A fund led by the Raine Group. Here’s TechCrunch with a writeup, which also includes a look at an executive reshuffle and marginal insight into expansion plans. The spinoff news comes not too long after the company announced a West Coast expansion, one that explicitly targets the comedy category.

First of all, mazel tov to all! But also: Why did all these investments come in at the same month? Also, why did it all come out in the time of year when many a venture capitalist is thought to be on vacation? Conal Byrne, HowStuffWork’s new incoming president, was game to put a positive spin on it, though he doesn’t quite answer the question. “The industry has finally hit the tipping point that investors have been waiting for,” he wrote, through a rep. “Validation of a big market opportunity.” That feeling is generally shared across other sources that I reached out to, though the timing thing remains a puzzle. (Herd mentality? An actual tipping point? Maybe a bit of both?) Nevertheless, there were several private expressions of relief that dollars are finally flowing.

One thing to observe from all this: These four investments are substantially different from the kinds of investments we’ve often seen in (and adjacent to) the podcast space up until this point. Much of the attention over the past few years has generally been on consumer-focused audio app and platform plays — Anchor, Bumpers, Otto Radio, 60dB, RadioPublic, and so on — which are, in other words, stuff that’s more conventionally known within the broader tech industry. But these recent investments — three straight-up media companies, one podcast technology infrastructure company — are specific to the needs, textures, and idiosyncrasies of the podcast ecosystem.

I like where this is going.

(2) Apple analytics. While the summer closed out with news of investments, the season kicked off with an Apple bombshell. During its WWDC conference back in June, the company’s podcast team announced that publishers will soon be provided with in-episode analytics — which is to say, publishers will soon be able to systematically go beyond the download and tell just how much of their episodes are actually being listened to on the aggregate. This is undeniably the most significant development to hit the podcast industry since…well, since Apple consolidated the disparate ecosystem by featuring podcasts in the iTunes architecture, breaking it out as a standalone app, and then eventually packaging the app with iOS by default.

My coverage on the matter was spread across three separate issues:

Nieman Lab also ran a useful piece from WAMU’s Gabe Bullard, who sought to project what might happen to podcasts by examining what happened to the radio industry when its ratings became more precise ten years ago. To sum: A fragmented world was revealed, genres died off, accuracy disputes emerged, and some who were thought to be big turned out not to be all that big after all. We’ll likely see the same kinds of effects ripple across the podcast industry, and as a result, we’ll probably see some recalibration of power and standing. We’re due for a moment of disruption, which is as much a period of potential as it is pitfall. (Chaos is a ladder, after all, as some dude once said.)

(3) More and more adaptations. To illustrate the prevalence of this trend, here’s a sample of just a few of noteworthy developments in this area over the past few months:

  • Gimlet Media articulating its intellectual property pipeline as a prominent talking point for press coverage around its recent fundraise, building on a steadily increasing track record of adaptations that include Homecoming and StartUp being adapted for television, along with the “Man of the People” episode on Reply All being adapted for film.
  • In August, HBO announced that it will be adapting WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens into a series of four hour-long specials.
  • Also in August, Universal Cable Productions announced that it was adapting Night Vale Presents’ Alice Isn’t Dead for the USA Network. Accompanying the news was word of a novel based on the podcast, to be published by Harper Perennial in 2018.
  • The TV adaptation of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore, picked up by Amazon Studios, has an October release date and now, a trailer. A book adaptation is also in the works.
  • There remains scuttlebutt that First Look Media was shopping Missing Richard Simmons around as “potential source material for a TV series,” per a Hollywood Reporter article from April.

The prospect of adaptation is valuable for publishers in three key ways: (1) obviously, it represents a whole new potential revenue stream, (2) they’re good expressions of recognition by more established systems of media and publishing, and (3) each successfully executed adaptation is an audience development and marketing vessel for the original podcast as much as it is a standalone product.

That said, some attention should be paid as to whether these adaptations actually pay off. Remember, it took a while for comic books to rev up as hot sources of intellectual property for the more lucrative film industry, especially after an uneven string of performances in the ’90s and early 2000s. (But then again, the film industry did have a…challenging summer. But maybe that doesn’t really tell us anything?)

(4) On programming. It’s been kind of a strange year, at least for me. We’ve seen a heckuva lot more podcasts of increasing ambition, and we’ve seen some tremendous successes that have taken the medium to new heights. But I can’t seem to shake the feeling that the pace of successes has been somewhat uneven. Like there isn’t much certainty that the space as a whole can hold the public conversation for a sustained period of time.

In any case, the year in #content so far has been defined in my mind by two things:

  • Two unambiguous hits from early in the year that broke into the mainstream, First Look Media’s Missing Richard Simmons (debuted in February) and Serial Productions’ S-Town (debuted in March).
  • The rise of the daily news podcast, about which I’ve written a frightful amount over the past few months. But frankly, between The New York Times’ The Daily (debuted in February) and NPR’s Up First (debuted in April), I think it’s the most exciting front in the space in a long time. The category represents a whole bunch of things: Innovation! Ambition! Serious consideration of the medium that breaks from podcasting’s still governing skeuomorphisms with radio! And with Vox Media throwing its hat into the ring soon, I’m excited to see how the genre continues to heat up.

Two questions moving forward: (a) Where will the next hit come from? (b) Does my thesis from May — where I argued that the success of Missing Richard Simmons, taken in context of the success of S-Town, indicates that podcasting remains fairly accessible and meritocratic, which is to say that a good thing can stand out no matter of pedigree — still stand?

(5) More and more windowing. There’s been a noticeable increase in such shenanigans between publishers and non-Apple platforms, particularly in terms of promotional partnerships that sees the former giving “exclusive early drop” opportunities to the latter. Examples include:

  • First Look Media’s Missing Richard Simmons releasing episodes early (along with some bonus material) on Midroll Media’s Stitcher platform. Of course, that flow was ultimately interrupted due to some, uh, “extraneous circumstances” related to the meta-elements of the podcast by the end of the show’s run, but I heard the experiment paid off quite a bit for Stitcher. A Midroll rep told me that the partnership drove six times the usual number of daily new subscription signups during the show’s run.
  • Gimlet Media debuted its collaboration with the Loud Speakers Network, Mogul, on Spotify weeks before the podcast would eventually be distributed through the open ecosystem. The Brooklyn-based company later announced that its upcoming history podcast, Uncivil, will be windowed on TuneIn.
  • Speaking of TuneIn, the platform had previously tested out an exclusive distribution arrangement with The Ringer’s MLB Show at the start of baseball season.
  • And speaking of Spotify, the music streaming platform also developed a windowing relationship with WNYC, where the public radio station debuted the latest season of 2 Dope Queens earlier on Spotify.

Aside from Stitcher, it’s unclear to me whether such arrangements are paying off enough to establish this as a worthwhile strategy to be commonly implemented across the space. What is clear, however, is that such moves have not gone unnoticed by Apple, the long-time steward of the space.

And there were hints of blowback from Cupertino. As Digiday reported during the Missing Richard Simmons run:

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

Awkward! Also, perturbing.

(6) Platform fluidity. Last March, reacting to the launch of Audible’s original programming slate, the introduction of Google Play Music’s podcast feature, and the continued rollout of Spotify’s video and podcast offerings, I argued that the word “podcast” will lose all of its original meaning by the end of that year. Which is to say, the concept will no longer be too tethered to its initial infrastructural connotations — RSS feeds, podcatchers, and so on — and that arguments over what’s a “podcast” and what’s not will be fully relegated into a game of pure semantics and ideological identities. Instead, the way we talk about all of this — the content, the technology, the audiences — will have shifted from a narrative about the clash between an incumbent and an insurgent (“the future of radio”) towards a clash between publishing factions defined by different formations of publishing communities (“a type/genre/kind of audio”).

(Man, I was so much less literal back then.)

I think there’s been a fair bit of evidence that precisely this has played out over the intervening year and a half, contributing to a space that feels a lot more…fluid, conceptually, than it once was.

Consider the following developments:

  • Spotify is producing original podcasts in addition to their overarching efforts to establish their platform as a meaningful alternative to Apple. (Or, internally, to establish podcasts as a meaningful addition to their raison d’etre of being a music consumption platform.) The company seems to be getting ready for another round of original podcast programming, according to Bloomberg, though it’s unclear how that’s been affected by the dismissal of Tom Calderone, its head of video and podcasting operations.
  • Audible and Stitcher Premium, both of which possess value propositions that are defined by a sense of exclusivity, have begun trickling shows out beyond their paywalls and into the open ecosystem.
  • Meanwhile, Google Play Music is making its own quiet excursion into original podcast programming.
  • iHeartRadio, a native of Internet radio (and progeny of old radio), is increasingly agitating to claim some portion of the podcast space. In the past year, the platform has established distribution relationships with Art19, Libsyn, and NPR member stations. It, too, dabbles with some original programming, branded and otherwise.
  • SiriusXM is quietly developing a podcast platform of their own by the name of Spoke.
  • And while we’re on the subject of apps, we’ve also seen increasing activity within the social audio app front. In particular, the Betaworks-backed Anchor — a contemporary of Bumpers — is increasingly deploying podcast nomenclature (and getting involved in the concerns of podcasts writ large) to describe itself, its machinations, and by extension, its value proposition. A prime example of this can be found in its latest audio-to-social video feature, which adapts the broader Audiogram initiative into its infrastructure.

One way to thread all of these developments together is to frame it all as the story of several non-Apple platforms slowly (and clumsily) encroaching on Apple’s position as a steward of the space with a relatively hands-off stance, maybe to one day capitalize on the various inefficiencies that have resulted from that stance.

Have we seen a meaningful alternative platform to Apple yet? It doesn’t seem like it, based on what I’ve seen. As it stands, Apple remains the primary firehose, and everyone else is still a tiny spigot by comparison. Nevertheless, the encroachment marches on.

(A quick side thought on the fate of user generated content-oriented apps: While it’s unclear what their precise value propositions are to bigger publishers, you could argue that they could collectively serve as a good next step for the species of smaller solo independent publishers that find themselves being pushed out by bigger, more organized, and typically moneyed publishers. I haven’t really thought this through just yet, but should Apple change its hands-off stance — and should Apple Podcasts’ facilitation of the space be diluted beyond some proportional tipping point — small and upstart creators would need a place to go.)

[storybreak]

So those are the six trends that’ve stood out to me. As a collective, I think they describe a space that has made meaningful gains where it counts (size, revenue, legitimacy, prestige, awareness, and so on), but as a result has become increasingly complex. That complexity can be destabilizing, and this story has a bigger potential curveball coming its way with the introduction of the new analytics layer in November. Rest assured: I’ll be back by then to cover all of that.

Before I move on to some quick news hits, I also want to quickly talk about the three companies in the industry that have most stood out to me over the past eight months. They aren’t necessarily the most successful or the biggest — though they are quite successful and big — but rather, they’re the most interesting, and they’ve been the most fun to think and/or talk about.

The three most interesting podcast companies

HowStuffWorks. HWS is officially almost two decades old; its podcast business, headlined by Stuff You Should Know, is about half that. And yet the Atlanta-based company has, over the past year, operated with a verve of a much younger venture. It has aggressively hired new talent (working from a playbook that seems to be revolved around drafting established Internet media pioneers from the mid-aughts, including Cracked.com founder Jack O’Brien and Mental Floss’ Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur), expanded the geography of its operations, and spun out as a whole new independent entity with new funds. Can an older hand successfully retool itself for the future?

The Ringer. I happen to love The Ringer as a publication, but I also think the stuff that they’re doing with their podcast network is low-key revolutionary. It features rigorous experimentation (Binge Mode, of all things, is a triumph in concept and execution), a fluid use of their writers as valuable audio assets, and an approach that seems to have meaningfully integrated their audio division with the rest of the business. The Ringer isn’t for everybody, but when it’s yours, it’s really, really yours, and its podcast division is the purest expression of that fact.

That said, the fact that its ownership structure is a mystery makes the enterprise tricky to fully trust. We can’t quite know for sure how the company is doing, and as a result, we can’t assess for sure whether the model is financially successful — and therefore replicable — or not. Then again, The Ringer head Bill Simmons told Recode’s Peter Kafka back in February that they’re doing well, and the organization seems to be valuable enough for Vox Media to establish a technology and advertising relationship with in May, so hey, maybe something’s there.

The New York Times. When the Gray Lady originally announced that it was assembling a new podcast team last year, I imagined an outcome not unlike what we’ve seen with, say, Slate: a portfolio of subject-specific shows that export the feel and sensibility of its parent publisher, only tighter and more pristine. What ended up emerging was something more drastic, the creation of a whole new…let’s call it a franchise. (Or, heaven forbid, a #brand.) By the end of summer 2017, it’s not inaccurate to say as far as the Times’ audio machinations are concerned, you have The Daily, and you have everything else that orbits The Daily.

On the one hand, this is incredibly exciting. That team has built a powerful machine, one that has equal capacity to break stories, deepen impact, and serve as a platform to launch complementary projects. But on the other hand, the problem with building a basketball team around a single player is the implosion that happens when that player gets injured, gets tangled up in controversy, or just gets old. This is a privileged problem, of course, but it’s a problem nonetheless. What happens next will be fascinating to watch.

[storybreak]

Two stories on political podcasts.

(1) The genre is strong! Which is not entirely surprising, of course, given the current spirit of the times where politics and the media have definitively fused into one giant, amorphous, Jeff Goldblum-in-The Fly-like blob. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr (formerly of Ad Age) has a piece up checking in on the growing category, and it contains two nifty data points for us: First, that the twelve-year-old Slate Political Gabfest “brought in about $1 million in revenue last year at a $25 CPM and an average download of a few hundred thousand per episode,” and second, that revenue for the political podcasts in Midroll Media’s portfolio “has doubled this year compared to 2016.”

(2) Vice News is the latest media org to engage with the “podcasts as left-wing political talk radio” angle, providing a broad accounting of the emerging phenomenon. Do pair that with the “alternative left wing media infrastructure” by The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins from July, titled “How the Left Lost Its Mind.”

Kids podcasts make a marketing push. Drawing some inspiration from February’s #TryPod audience building campaign, a coalition of kids-oriented podcasts are attempting a similar cross-promotion scheme to spread their audiences around and generally bring more attention to the category. Participating shows include Brains On (APM), Wow in the World (NPR), Eleanor Amplified (WHYY), But Why (Vermont Public Radio), Tumble Science (Wondery), Circle Round (WBUR), Story Pirates, and The Longest Shortest Time (Stitcher).

I’m told that the coalition was formed organically, with NPR running point on the outreach to potential participants. This campaign is said not to be directly related to the Kids Listen collective, of which all of these podcasts are members.

As part of the effort, Brain On’s Molly Bloom will be producing a “bonus preview” episode that will feature highlights from participating shows. The preview will be distributed throughout the coalition’s podcast feeds in early October.

The campaign kicked off yesterday, and will run for 13 weeks.

Bites:

  • BlogTalkRadio and Spreaker have announced a merger. Note: “Shareholders from each of Spreaker and BlogTalkRadio will be making investments in support of the combined company’s growth plan, which will be rolled out over the next several months,” the press release states. Terms were not disclosed. (Press release)
  • Ben Johnson, host of APM’s Marketplace Tech and Codebreaker, is moving to WBUR to start a new project on “the vast/complex/rich community of the Interwebs.” Congrats on the move! (Twitter)
  • This is cool: “Welcome to Night Vale’s Cecil Baldwin on Finding the Queerness in His Character.” (Slate)
  • KCRW is ending the broadcast run of its weekday talk show, “To The Point,” and will repackage it as a weekly podcast. Anomaly or trend? Let’s hope that we stick around long enough to find out. (Current)
  • Frontline, the investigative documentary series from PBS and WGBH, is rolling out a podcast with the legendary Jay Allison serving as senior editor and creative director. PRX serves as distributor. The show officially launches on September 14.
  • Now, I don’t usually derive much value from content marketing pieces, but this audioBoom writeup sees the digital advertising agency Ad Results claiming to “own” 40 percent of the podcast industry’s revenues. This isn’t too far-fetched, from what I’ve heard. (audioBoom)
  • Keep an eye on this: “Traditional Radio Faces a Grim Future, New Study Says.” (Variety)

Cool! Thanks for reading. See you in six weeks.

[photocredit]Photo by Gauthier Delecroix used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

The podcast industry puts on a too-big blazer and tries to impress the old guy at the party

The dog and pony show. Yesterday saw the second annual IAB Podcast Upfronts, the industry event meant to drum up interest in the medium among ad buyers. The day’s programming — which was long, exhausting a full-day affair that ran over eight hours that nearly drove me to my first cigarette in a long while — was packed to the brim with endless announcements and minutiae. In the interest of time, I’m just going to stick what the things that struck me as interesting in terms of what it says about where we’re going, along with some spattering of notable, piecemeal developments. Do read the writeups over at The Wall Street Journal, Ad Age, and AdExchanger if you’re looking for broader overviews.

We gonna get wonky here.

1. This year’s festivities saw an increase in the number of participating presenters, from eight podcast publishers to twelve. The returnees were: NPR, WNYC Studios, ESPN, CBS, AdLarge, Panoply, Midroll, and Podtrac’s recently spun-off ad sales arm known as Authentic. Joining the slate were: Wondery, HowStuffWorks, Time Inc., and PodcastOne. A strange mishmash of companies, to be sure, with the proportion of companies with legacy media roots slightly outweighing the digital natives. (My personal count on the latter category: HowStuffWorks, Panoply, Midroll, Podtrac.)

2. In their presentation yesterday, Panoply announced it was building something they regarded as an “imprint,” to borrow a book publishing concept, around the author Gretchen Rubin, which hosts the popular Happier podcast on the network. Following something of a sub-network model, Rubin is set to help curate a collection of podcasts within the self-improvement genre, likely drawing from her community of like-minded writers. This isn’t the first time such a model would be tested; Midroll, of all places, tested this out with its Wolfpop network, which was curated by comedian Paul Scheer. Wolfpop was later folded into Earwolf when Midroll moved to streamline its content offerings.

But the real thing of interest here is Panoply’s use of the book publishing analogy. That company has consistently exhibited behaviors that suggest a lean towards the direction of that industry — especially now, as it builds products around known quantities within the book publishing space, like Malcolm Gladwell and Sophia Amoruso — and a recent quote by Slate chairman Jacob Weisberg, published in a recent Ken Doctor column(more on that later), further emphasized this possible way that the company views itself:

In the world of books, nobody cares if something is published by Viking or Random House. They care about the author and the book. I think podcasting is going to be more like that.

Super interesting.

3. “One in five podcast listeners are listening to an ESPN podcast,” said JonPaul Rexing, ESPN’s senior director of sales, apparently citing numbers from Edison Research. This particular method of presenting audience data seemed to gain some currency in yesterday’s event, with Time Inc. also adopting similar language. In a press release that accompanied their presentation, the company noted that its podcast programming “reaches 3 in 4 adults who have listened to a podcast,” citing numbers from comScore-MRI Fusion. I have a little trouble internalizing these stats, the boldness of which doesn’t seem to square at all with the medium’s long-running distrust in its apples-to-apples analytics at an industry-wide level. (Not directly relevant, but totally worth knowing: ESPN works with first-party data.)

4. Speaking of ESPN, I find myself unreasonably excited about its upcoming podcast adaptation of the brand’s well-loved 30 for 30 documentary series. (News of the adaptation first surfaced back in July, when the relevant job listings went up.) The show’s first season is scheduled for an early 2017 rollout, and the production team will be announced publicly soon. I’m told that they will include alums from WNYC, NPR, and the BBC. And from the rumors I’ve heard about their identities, I’m very, very excited. And so was senior producer Jody Avirgan when he announced the project on-stage, who seemed beside himself as he enthused, “We’re going to be committing acts of journalism.”

5. There’s a bit I really enjoyed in AdExchanger’s coverage of the event that discusses skepticism over dynamic ad insertion. Check out the whole article, of course, but here’s the money:

“We are typically hearing from advertisers who are the biggest, longest-term folks in the space [that they] are concerned about insertion,” said Midroll’s [Lex] Friedman. “The networks that force them to move to insertion are seeing performance worsen.”

This sentiment echoes an item I wrote back in May, which involved reservations expressed by Mack Weldon’s marketing manager Collin Willardson (an aggressive buyer of podcast ads) about the technology. “Dynamic ad insertion disassociates the host from the advertiser, so they care less about the actual product or brand they’re trying to sell,” he told me then. “Audiences pick up on that, and quickly tune out.”

6. Miscellanea:

  • The New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment is apparently working on a report on the state of the podcast industry in the city, which will likely include an examination of its labor dynamics. (Re-upping this Adam Ragusea piece, as appropriate.) A city-driven ad campaign to raise podcast awareness is also impending.
  • Edison Research rolled out some additional data points to their Share of Ear study, revolving around the way podcast consumers relate to the medium’s current advertising executions and practices. You check those out in a report posted on the IAB website ahead of the upfront.
  • AdLarge announced its own consumer-facing podcast play: a platform called Cabana. Details to come.
  • Panoply’s branded podcast collaboration with GE, which resulted in last year’s The Message, is due for a second show later this year.
  • Also for the horse-race observers, Midroll is now repping APM’s Brains On!, which they grouped with The Longest Shortest Time as a parenting show. And speaking of Midroll, they’re trying their hand at true crime, with a show about the Boston Strangler called Stranglers, which comes out of a partnership with documentary shop Northern Light Productions. (Not that anybody asked, but my favorite Boston Strangler media is the Sebastian Junger book A Death in Belmont.)
  • Night Vale Presents’ new show: something called The Orbiting Human Circus. Their ad sales are being represented by Authentic.
  • Time Inc. officially announced its slate of podcasts yesterday. You can find the details in the customary press release. And speaking of Time Inc., one of its brands, Sports Illustrated, announced its own batch of new shows this week. It also mentioned that it is now partnered up with DGital Media. This marks the brand’s move away from Panoply, which it previously worked with on the podcast front. I was told the departure was amicable.

Wow that made my neck hurt.

What’s going on? This year’s upfront festivities took place in Time Inc.’s Henry R. Luce auditorium in downtown Manhattan, somewhat of a step up in lavishness compared to last year’s venue, the homelier Greene Space at WNYC. That isn’t intended as shade on the Greene Space, which I love. Rather, I state it as an indication of an underlying problem.

While the proceedings yesterday were significantly smoother compared to last year’s festivities — “there’s air conditioning!” was a common refrain among attendees, a reference to some ventilatory disturbances back then — it was also significantly stranger, a little more strained. It had, simultaneously, the feel of a child wearing a much-too-big blazer and the feel of a much-too-older man at a college party.

The former is something I’ve articulated before: the strangeness of the podcast industry, as the new new thing, appropriating the traditional structure of the upfront ritual, an anthropological performance carried over from the old world of commercial television and radio. I called it a conservative stance, one that operates off the sense that you win trust by performing the rituals they do and by the looking the way they look, as opposed to creating new rituals, spaces, and market expectations of their own.

The latter comes out from what is an inevitable dynamic: the entrance of folks from legacy radio backgrounds bringing in legacy radio sensibilities, along with a not-insignificant amount of overconfidence that those sensibilities will transition well — and in a manner that isn’t destructive — as they followed both the potential money and the new cool. It’s that sensibility that defined the tone of yesterday’s festivities, I think: all the usual tropes associated with the positive elements of the medium, but devoid of its rich, glorious complexities.

This upfront, at this particular point in time, bore the responsibility of publicly constructing the narrative of the medium for the benefit of not just the advertising community, but everything else around it as well. Some of those people were not ready to do that, and the ones who were, alas, were given the wrong stage to do it. The result? A deficiency of cool — a currency vital to the function of a creative advertiser — and a representation of a medium, with all the power and thrills and beauty it contains, that only fleetingly comes close to being vaguely recognizable.

“It’s kind of a coming-out party,” said Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, when we spoke on Tuesday ahead of the IAB Podcast Upfronts. “I mean, people have heard of us. It’s just that they didn’t realize we were as big are.”

I’ve committed my fair share of sins writing this newsletter, and perhaps one of the biggest is the lack of attention I’ve paid to HowStuffWorks, the 18-year-old Atlanta-based digital media outfit that also happens to be one of the strongest, and most interesting, podcast operations currently running. A multi-platform entity spanning across audio, video, and text that has transferred ownership a few times — its current parent company is Washington-based Blucora — HowStuffWorks has built a considerable following on its so-called “longform edutainment” programming whose strengths, in my view, are largely tethered to its enthusiastic hyper-focus on subject verticals — which are Wikipedia-esque in scope and sprawl — and celebrity-creation, which gives the company a digital sensibility vaguely reminiscent of YouTube multi-channel networks (MCNs). It’s overwhelmingly pleasant, smart, and nourishing.

The podcast arm of HowStuffWorks is substantial, 12 shows strong at this writing, and it’s growing. According to a press release sent out earlier this week, the network tripled its downloads over the past two years, from 8.8 million monthly downloads in 2014 to over 28 million downloads in June 2016. Download volumes, I’m told, are split equally between new episodes and across the network’s back catalogues. (Worth noting: HowStuffWorks relies on Podtrac’s measurement standards, and regularly appears in the latter company’s monthly podcast ranker.)

Hoch tells me that Podtrac’s Industry Rankings, which was introduced in May and ranked networks by unique monthly downloads in the U.S., proved to be a boon for the network. HowStuffWorks debuted in the fourth spot, where it remains, and while the ranker should be interpreted with copious disclaimers (context and caveats can be found in a previous Hot Pod), it brought the company a great deal of fresh attention. “The in-bounds we got from that were amazing,” Hoch said, exuding confidence over advertising prospects. (Relevant: the company has secured Liberty Mutual as an exclusive advertiser on its CarStuff podcast for a full year, if that’s interesting to you.)

So, what does the future hold for HowStuffWorks? I’m told that the company expects to double its podcast revenue across the next year, and that more shows — along with some possible headcount expansion — should be expected down the line. But I’m also told to watch out for a technology-related development. In a tech environment that seems more than a little ad-tech envious, I’m curious to see what, exactly, this means.

One more thing: I find myself endlessly fascinated by the company’s physical placement in Atlanta. I’ve often thought that it’s a great media city, beyond Turner Broadcasting. Hoch tells me that between the university system and the region’s robust film and television industry (which he claims is substantially better than that of Los Angeles), he has easy access to a strong talent pool for both talent and engineering. Speaking as someone who is growing increasingly weary of the coasts, that’s utterly welcome news.

Juicy, juicy details. I’m a big fan of media analyst Ken Doctor and his Newsonomics columns — which tend to be extravagantly long and mercilessly wonky — and so it was such a pleasure for me to find that he’s put out two very separate podcast-related analyses over the past week.

The first column, published in Politico, is structured around newly announced developments at The New York Times’ audio team and contains several bits of detail that, as a collective, vividly illustrates how this baby industry operates on a ecosystemic-level. Do read the whole column in its entirety, but here are my highlights:

  • The New York Times announced its newest podcast on Tuesday, Still Processing, a culture podcast featuring critic-at-large Wesley Morris (formerly of the now-defunct Grantland and the Do You Like Prince Movies? podcast) and the Times Magazine staff writer Jenna Wortham (who focuses on technology and culture in the broadest sense, and who was gave a really wonderful interview on a recent ep of the Recode Media podcast). This launch comes several weeks after the Times launched The Run-Up” its election podcast, establishing what appears to be start of a pretty aggressive rollout strategy.
  • Still Processing is produced in partnership with Pineapple Street Media. The project was hinted at in a previous Hot Pod.
  • The Times’ podcasts are now hosted on Art19. This new Art19 partnership was also hinted in a previous Hot Pod, and I assure you there are more big partnership announcements to come. Watch for them.
  • Andy Mills, a long-time Radiolab producer (the one with the hair), is joining the Times’ audio team, further illustrating the team’s strategy of recruiting from the public radio talent pool.
  • The Times has a “three-year investment” in the audio team, which I’m reading as, more or less, a three-year runway.

Between its selective partnerships, the manner in which its spread its bets, and the way it juxtaposes internal development with external collaborations, I think the Times is hitting a very sweet spot between being strategic caution and intelligent risk. Half of the battle, frankly, is starting out in a good position, and while some of their partnerships (and projects and hires) will probably fail, they’re configured to do so in a way that’ll help them survive into the next step.

Doctor’s second column, published in Current, is far more exhaustive and surveys the breadth of the industry along with its requisite opportunities. This piece, in particular, I’m not going to disrespectfully butcher through excerpt and extensive aggregation, and I highly encourage you to spend some time with this. But I did want to point out an idea embedded in the writeup that I’m currently turning around in my head:

In the wider sense, podcasts offer tryouts for public radio, “minor leagues” for talent development, with candidates given greater responsibility and opportunity to be coached and nurtured. Further, the freer and bigger market for audio talent begins to impact hiring throughout the public radio ecosystem.

This is true beyond the public radio system, as we’ve seen with the emerging trend of podcast-to-TV adaptations and the continuous stream of moneyed networks picking up homegrown independent podcasts. It’s a function of, and remains a testament to, the medium’s creator-friendly openness. (The condition of which, by the way, is increasingly thought to be contested as the industry professionalizes.)

Quick note. The IAB Tech Lab issued some guidelines for podcast advertising earlier this week. Check out the Ad Age writeup, and expect my analysis next week.

Bites:

  • Early last week, American Public Media announced a new investigative podcast, In The Dark, that’ll examine the child abduction of Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota — the case that led to a law enforcing state sex-offender registries. In a chilling coincidence, Wetterling’s remains were discovered last Thursday. The podcast launched early Wednesday morning, with the reporting fully on the case. In The Dark hit at the top of the charts earlier this week, on the strength of its teaser. (iTunes, Star Tribune)
  • Midroll has a new CEO: Erik Diehn, formerly the company’s VP of business development. He replaces Adam Sachs, who announced his departure from the company back in June after two years in the role. Also, Lex Friedman, formerly the EVP of sales and development, is the company’s new chief revenue officer. (Company blog)
  • This is pretty cool: WNYC is finding some success in using text-to-donate campaigns whose call-to-actions are included in their podcasts. It’s still not a system where you can donate directly to a specific podcast, however, but I think that set-up is never going to happen. (Current)
  • Jonathan Goldstein’s new show, which he’s making at Gimlet, is finally coming out later this month. I swear it’s like summer is the season everyone drops stuff even though we’re all on vay-cay. (iTunes)
  • Pandora is experimenting with the host-read advertising format, which it will use in the music-interview show hybrid station the company is launching with musician Questlove — who, together with Malcolm Gladwell, gave the opening keynote at yesterday’s IAB podcast upfront. (Digiday)
  • NPR’s going for that sweet Tim Ferriss/Recode/StartUp money with How I Built This, a new interview podcast about entrepreneurship and stuff. Hosted by Guy Raz, that other guy with the cool glasses. (NPR)
  • Starbucks has branded podcasts. Yep. Part of a larger multi-platform branded content situation. (TechCrunch)
  • Apparently there’s a piece of fancy apparel called the “Boho Mid-length Long Sleeve Podcast Co-Host Top,” courtesy of Modcloth. No, this isn’t a native ad, but I’m all ears if someone from Modcloth is reading this. (New York; WBEZ’s Nerdette podcast also did some digging)
  • Also, Apple is getting rid of the headphone jack. And introduces “AirPods.” Oh boy. (BuzzFeed)

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)

Not enough advertisers for podcasts, or not enough podcasts worth advertising on?

The podcast advertising hurdle. Podcastland received a fair bit of attention last week with The Wall Street Journal and The Information (a tech business news site largely read by technology insiders) both publishing stories revolving around the same theme: Advertising remains the defining problem for the medium’s professionalization into an industry, as many brands still appear unwilling to pour money into the space. The articles contain nothing longtime observers don’t already know — data scarcity remains a huge issue for bigger advertisers, ad tech solutions are still unsophisticated and held back by walled gardens, podcast companies want brand advertisers but it’s a tragic love unreciprocated — but seeing the two articles come out in tandem, on the same day no less, is a lovely dose of real talk, especially after all the frothy conversations that dominated the medium’s narrative in the latter half of last year. (I alluded to such frothiness in my entry for Nieman Lab’s Predictions for Journalism 2016 series, by the way.)

Comparatively speaking, podcast ad spending is minuscule. The advertising spend for podcasts in the United States is projected to be $36.1 million this year, according to ZenithOptimedia, as cited in the Journal piece. In contrast, the U.S. radio ad spend was $17.6 billion in 2015, according to the same source. Perhaps comparing broadcast numbers to podcast numbers at this point isn’t categorically appropriate, given the immense historical size and weight behind the former. But the ad spend for digital video, which one could possibly describe as a closer cousin, is projected to be $9.59 billion in the United States this year, according to eMarketer. So even when you cut it that way, the gulf is still huge.

But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. I’m partial towards this perspective from Recode senior media editor Peter Kafka, which was offered when I contacted his people for another story (more on that in a bit). Through his personal body double Eric Scott Johnson, Kafka wrote:

Like every other new format, it’s going to take a while for the ad business to catch up to the audience shift, but like I’ve said before, I think that’s not a terrible thing — it gives us all some time to play around and figure out what works. (One thing that does work — the excellent sockwear line made by the good people at Mack Weldon.)

In fact, taking the time to “play around and figure out what works” is quite possibly the most important thing to do right now. The last thing the industry should want is to unthinkingly push for growth — if there’s anything that the short history of the Internet advertising has taught me, it’s that the unthoughtful push for growth is the stuff that probably leads to the development and proliferation of poor advertising conventions and ad fraud. (See: the pop-up ad.)

Anyway, definitely check out the writeups from the Journal and The Information. Especially the latter, which is a really, really fine publication and I’ll be crying when my free one month trial is over and I have to decide whether to start shelling out $39.99 a month for it.

But before moving on, I just want to briefly bring up two more things:

The question for independents. The Information’s version of events makes a brief reference to a dynamic that may worry some: Podcast companies are all fighting for advertising dollars, sure, but when dollars are given, it’s distributed unequally — with the lion’s share going to a few shows, either based on performance or prestige. That state of affairs captured best by this line in The Information’s piece:

…without more data on listenership and an ad tech infrastructure, the gap between podcasting’s haves and have-nots might widen, podcast executives say.

You can look at it one of two ways: On the one hand, this is perfectly reasonable — the market wants what it wants. On the other, that this is a terrible situation for niche, quirky, and perhaps innovative independent podcasts. I’m reminded, in particular, of something that was said by Welcome to Night Vale’s Joseph Fink, which I highlighted in an issue earlier this month:

I worry about big money pouring into podcasting…I really, really hope that all the money pouring into podcasting won’t bury tiny, weird independent podcasts.

Both things can simultaneously be true. Even if we lived in a world where ad money flows freely into the podcasting space, that isn’t a guarantee that the wealth will be distributed equally between all shows. And that’s fine; it just means that these indie podcasts would have to find some other way to monetize, which itself is a market opportunity that someone can step into. (Hint, hint, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

In other words, it’s the story of the creative economy, modern and historical.

An alternate theory. So here’s a theory that I’m also partial to: It’s entirely possible that podcasting’s advertising problem also comes, at least in some small part, from the fact that there simply isn’t enough quality content that justifies the attention and respect of big advertisers. Think about this way: How many shows do you think actually warrant advertising from brands like Ford, in terms of either download numbers or prestige?

Not a lot, I’d wager.

From that perspective, there literally aren’t enough valuable ad slots to accommodate a $1 billion ad spend, even if we factor in dynamic ad insertion. This refines the familiar axiom that podcast discovery is broken in an interesting way. We may be right in complaining that we lack adequate solutions that help podcasts find their appropriate audiences — or to help niche podcasts find niche audiences, to put it another way. But it’s entirely possible that the bigger problem is that we lack discovery solutions to adequately filter out podcasts below a certain quality threshold — thus beating back the problem of saturation.

Modern Love’s strong first month. The podcast, which comes out of a partnership between The New York Times and WBUR, enjoyed 1.4 million downloads across the whole show since launching in mid-January. That number was confirmed to me by Jessica Alpert, WBUR’s managing producer for program development, when we spoke on the phone yesterday afternoon. It includes downloads off the podcast feed and listens on the web players found on both WBUR.org and NYTimes.com.

You can do the math yourself, but keep in mind: At this writing, the show has 6 full episodes, along with a short episode (which I like to call “Shordios”) and a trailer that was released in December. That’s a remarkable number for something that Ira Glass didn’t bump on his show.

People just love Love, man.

Recode Media. I’ve already written a fair bit about my admiration for Recode’s podcast suite in the past, so I’d like to take a quick second to highlight their new show, Recode Media with Peter Kafka. It features interviews with, well, notable media-types, so it’s fun fodder for anyone who nerds out about the decline/death/resurgence/time-is-a-flat-circle of the digital media and publishing industry (like me).

The new podcast kicked off last Thursday, with its first episode featuring New Yorker editor David Remnick on the hot seat. Recode Media was given a soft launch off the flagship Recode podcast feed, being published as standalone episodes on Thursdays as opposed to being piloted as a segment on the main show — which was the route the Recode team took with their other recently launched show, Too Embarrassed To Ask.

In a note sent by proxy to me, Kafka wrote:

I’ve been a professional podcast listener since Bill Simmons got me hooked, back in 2007 or 2008, and I’ve gotten the chance to write about the boomlet a few times as well. In 2013, for about 30 seconds, I had both Bill and Marc Maron signed on to appear together at one our media conferences, which would have been at the top of my professional highlight reel. Alas, things fall apart.

Alas, indeed.

Designing a podcast for kids. Why isn’t there more audio programming for kids? I’ve heard that question come up a lot more lately among radio types, the overarching query of which was neatly articulated by Lindsay Patterson, who produces the Tumble science podcast, in a piece for Current. That very question was also the subject of an amusing tangent at a recent podcast panel. (“The guilt of a parent who puts the television on to pacify their children is one of the most powerful emotional forces in existence,” said Gimlet’s Matt Lieber. Mild laughter ensued; stern heads nod gravely in agreement.)

I don’t have any strong theories explaining the scarcity of kids-focused audio programming. When I asked Marc Sanchez, who produces a kids’ podcast called Brains On under the American Public Media (APM) umbrella, he couldn’t come up with any theories either. “Honestly, I don’t know why it’s not more common. It seems like a great audience from a public radio perspective,” Sanchez said. “From a cynical marketing perspective, these are future listeners — why not engage them?”

Indeed, why not! After all, everybody makes babies, and everybody wants to limit how much time kids spend burning their eyeballs staring at screens, and after all, kids are the potential lifetime value consumer, if you really think about. Do it for the brand advertisers, people!

Brains On, by the way, is a great show. Similar to other science shows — early Radiolab, say, or Science Versus — the show is Q&A-based, with each episode featuring a string of interviews that look to answer a query presented at the very start. The twist here being, of course, that questions come from kid reporters, while answers come from very adult scientists. That the experts are attempting to communicate complexity to a child is something quite pleasant to experience; the adult voice lilts, introducing a gentleness to the proceedings, which ends up being soothing even to my childless mid-20s ears.

I asked Sanchez a couple of questions about how his team designed the show, and here are the highlights:

  • The team writes the show with kids between the ages of 6 and 12 in mind.
  • Like all good children’s shows, they try to make it bearable — even enjoyable! — for the adults. “We really keep in mind that parents are going to be listening to the show as well, because a lot of these kids don’t have first-hand access to listen,” Sanchez said.
  • They don’t dumb down the language. “It’s funny, because if you listen to our first few episodes, we were consciously trying to use words and concepts that we thought kids could understand,” he said. “The more feedback we got, the more we realized that kids are waaaaaaaaaay smarter than most of us give them credit. We found out pretty fast that we don’t have to talk down to kids. Think back to when you were a kid…you probably emulated older kids.”

When asked about the health of the show, Sanchez notes that it gets a “significant” number of monthly downloads. “We’re not Marketplace, but we’re in the top tier of APM,” he said. But enough downloads, it seems, to score some unique sponsorship/underwriting opportunities. Sanchez mentioned running spots for a kids magazine and even Harvey Mudd College, the science-oriented liberal arts college out in California.

Education and podcasts: Gotta start ’em young, folks. Anyway, I’m going to do some more thinking on podcasts for kids, so I’ll come back next week with another item.

Apple’s Podcasts Connect. So it looks like Apple, the precondition of the podcast universe as it currently exists, has made a small change to its podcast infrastructure: On iTunes, podcast submissions now go through a new spiffy-looking page. Dubbed Podcasts Connect, the new page looks like a step up from the early-2000s chic of the previous system, and is presumably part of the larger iTunes Connect ecosystem.

For now, the upgrade seems purely cosmetic, but it appears to portend a more significant shift towards a consolidated inventory management experience across all other iTunes verticals, like books and TV shows. (In my mind, this development is par for the course, given Apple’s penchant towards keeping users integrated with its ecosystem.)

Relevant bits:

  • Didn’t catch this last month, but: The Memory Palace’s Nate DiMeo is now developing podcasts for MTV. He works under former Grantland editorial director Dan Fierman, who’s been building an eye-catching team that includes talent with solid podcast cred under their belt, like Amy Nicholson and Molly Lambert. DiMeo will continue making The Memory Palace. (Current)
  • NPR’s newscasts now include language calling out the fact that they are live. NPR public editor Elizabeth Jensen digs into the rationale for the change, along with the complications it brings. (NPR)
  • Third Coast Festival, everybody’s favorite hippie indie audio commune, has launched a residency program for underrepresented producers in public radio. Send your proposals! (TCF)
  • PRX is getting ready to introduce something called Podquest in mid-March. More details here.
  • Bill Simmons’ upcoming publication, The Ringer, will almost certainly feature more podcasts. (Sports Illustrated)
  • Nerdist Industries’ Chris Hardwick joins Art19 as investor and advisor. (Art19 blog)
  • I played around with Anchor yesterday, and asked co-founder Michael Mignano a bunch of rambling questions. (Anchor)
  • We finally learn the fate of NPR Chicken. (Current)

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here, which now features exclusive content! More podcast news items! Also, a new membership model! Oh man!