The true crime show that’s gotten comparisons to Serial is heading for a second season and a new case

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 106, published February 7, 2017.

The Serial team forms a new production company, Serial Productions, and drops details on its latest project. This story got tons of pick-up when it was announced last Wednesday — getting write-ups on Variety, Deadline, EW.com, and Vulture, which I wrote — so you’re probably familiar with the broad strokes: the upcoming project is called S-Town, it’s a limited nonfiction series hosted by veteran This American Life producer Brian Reed, it’s set in a rural Alabama town, and all episodes will be published simultaneously sometime in March. As I pointed out in Vulture, Serial Productions also has two other projects in the works, though it remains a mystery whether they include the latest season of the company’s flagship show, Serial.

Oh, and speaking of mysteries: Starlee Kine appears to be part of the S-Town editorial team, according to the circulated press release. This would be her second podcasting effort following Mystery Show’s surprising departure from the Gimlet portfolio. (The first, some might recall, was her work as a producer on the very strange but very entertaining Election Profit-Makers, a screwball election-related prediction market podcast that wrapped, appropriately, last November.) It should be noted that Kine is a former This American Life producer. The editorial team also includes Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig, and Julie Snyder serves as the project’s executive producer.

So that’s the stuff that’s been well-established elsewhere. But I was also able to dig up the following two details that might be interesting to folks in the biz:

  • I reached out to ask about the relationship between Serial Productions and This American Life, which broke off from WBEZ to form its own standalone organization back in July 2015. Here’s the reply I got:

    Serial Productions is a separate company from This American Life. Serial Productions is headed by Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig and Ira Glass. This American Life is headed by Ira Glass. Serial Productions is the producer of Serial, S-Town, and future podcasts. Serial Productions will often pull talent from This American Life to host, produce, and edit podcasts. For example, Brian Reed has been on leave from being This American Life’s senior producer in order to make S-Town. And Serial Productions president Julie Snyder is the former senior producer of This American Life.

  • I’m also told that S-Town’s launch sponsorships were sold by Chicago-based Public Media Marketing (PMM), and that the responsibility for subsequent inventory will be split between PMM and Authentic, the ad-sales arm of the podcast measurement company Podtrac.

That’s all I got. Obviously, I’m very excited. I’ve been hankering for a truly juicy longform nonfiction narrative pod, and I haven’t been able to find very much of that lately. That said, “S-Town” is kind of a weird name — it’s almost dad-like in its construction — but I hear it’s short for something. We’ll find out next month.

How is The Ringer’s Podcast Network doing? Really well, it seems. That insight, among others, can be found in a long text interview with The Ringer head honcho Bill Simmons by Recode’s Peter Kafka that dropped last Friday. There’s a lot in there, but here’s the portion of the interview that’s especially relevant to us:

[conl]Kafka: So I’ve had this question since you launched, and I still do: You have some money from HBO. You have money from the podcasts. Can that support a staff that size?[/conl]

[conr]Simmons: Fuck yeah! The one thing that’s not a problem for us is money.[/conr]

[conl]Kafka: You’re generating enough revenue to cover your costs? You’re making money?[/conl]

[conr]Simmons: Yes. I don’t know why people are so surprised by that.[/conr]

[conl]Kafka: Everyone is surprised by that. Because no one believes that there’s that much money in podcasting.[/conl]

[conr]Simmons: Really? Go ask some people. We have really successful podcasts. Not just mine. But The Ringer NBA show is like 140,000, 150,000 listeners per show. Channel 33’s like 125,000 per show. Ringer NFL is like almost 100,000. You go on down the line…[/conr]

[conl]Kafka: It’s not that people don’t believe that people don’t listen to podcasts. It’s that it’s a really young industry.[/conl]

[conr]Simmons: It’s not any more.[/conr]

Those are certainly respectable download numbers, and it’s pretty remarkable that the podcast operation is able to drive a good chunk of The Ringer’s overall business (which, as the interview points out, has 65 full-time staffers). If anything, The Ringer seems to directly validate the model that Stratechery’s Ben Thompson laid out in “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing,” which was published after the demise of Grantland, Simmons’ previous digital operation, back in November 2015. (See: writing as lead generation, a media organization structured across multiple surfaces where higher-revenue mediums are able to drive lower-revenue mediums, and so on.)

Anyway, I highly recommend checking out the whole interview (obviously), which is just chock-full of really interesting stuff. Kafka, by the way, was also responsible for the last major Simmons-related podcast revelation: his March 2015 interview with Simmons, which took place during SXSW, was revealing in terms of the way ESPN handled the business end of his podcast operation back at Grantland — and the missed opportunity that entailed.

Oh, and one more thing:

Agreed, my man. Why y’all so cagey? Gimme those numbers, people.

Panoply cancels About Race — or, “Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race,” as the show is known in its entirety. The timing for the cancellation, frankly, is a little poor given, well, the state of the country right now, and that fact seems to be reflected in the official statement on the matter released by Panoply last week:

Panoply has made the difficult decision to not move forward with the podcast “Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race.” We loved working with Baratunde [Thurston], Raquel [Cepeda], Tanner [Colby], and Anna [Holmes] over the last two years, and are proud of their important contributions to the dialog about race in America. However, frequent scheduling issues made it difficult to produce the show that we all wanted to create. Though the cancellation was unrelated to the current political climate, we regret the timing. Ending it now is painful, but a growing company like ours must make hard decisions, and this was one of the hardest. Now more than ever, Panoply recognizes the urgent need for diverse voices and frank conversations, and we’re committed to covering the important topics of race and ethnicity in America. Please stay tuned!

I reached out to ask for concrete details about any projects or plans by the company aimed at meeting that need for, you know, diverse voices, frank conversations, and coverage of topics related to race and ethnicity in America. A spokesperson for the company declined to comment beyond what’s mentioned in the statement.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this, but a note on something that crossed my mind: after initially hearing about this news, I pulled up the Panoply website in an attempt to run a quick tally on the number of shows on the network that are hosted, produced, and/or creatively led by non-white talent. Going through the list, it occurred to me that, theoretically speaking, it’s a little hard to get a precise accounting of that number, given what appears to be the company’s core strategy of partnering with other media organizations and external individuals. (Now, at this point, I should make the disclaimer that I used to work for Panoply, and that I left the company around this time last year. All the analysis here reflects information that’s publicly available and/or based on reporting that I’ve done in the intervening year.)

Further complicating this is the way in which the website blurs the line between shows it actively produces, like Vox.com’s The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show, and the shows it does not, like the BuzzFeed portfolio that recently moved over to Panoply’s Megaphone platform for hosting. That amorphousness in editorial and production responsibility is curious from a branding perspective, but it’s also curious from an accountability perspective, as the spread makes it somewhat tricky to pin down the actual list of shows that are the product of the company’s direct editorial involvements. (To formulate it as a question: should Panoply be held accountable for — or, conversely, be well-regarded for — the diversity of the podcasts put forward by its publishing partners?) Thinking things through further, it also appears that Panoply isn’t alone in adopting this mixed structure that potentially complicates accountability checks: one could well argue that Acast, which appears to be largely driven as an ad-sales network, appears to adopt a similar hybrid model.

I don’t think there’s a specific argument that I’m making here. I just find all of this interesting, and I’m still mulling over the implications of this setup — whether there’s strategic value on the part of the company, or whether it potentially complicates its identity in the marketplace.

But yeah, about that list I was trying to make: no matter how you cut it, and running based off the website, the Panoply brand is, well, pretty white.

Quick note for fans of My Brother, My Brother, and Me. The full trailer for the comedy “advice” podcast’s TV adaptation dropped last week — following a clip that was circulated in early January — and it looks super fun. The show is set to premiere on February 23 on Seeso, the NBCUniversal-owned over-the-top streaming service that specializes in comedy programming. It will mark the second podcast-to-TV adaptation for Jesse Thorn’s Maximum Fun network in recent weeks, after Throwing Shade debuted its small screen incarnation on TV Land last month.

For more on MBMBaM and its TV project, check out podcast superfan Jaime Green’s profile of the McElroy brothers on Brooklyn Mag.

Two things for those tracking the Corporation for Public Broadcasting story:

  • Current has a story up on public media advocates pre-emptively mobilizing to deal with possible federal budget cuts ahead of the administration’s initial budget, which is expected to roll out sometime this month.
  • The New York Times published a piece this past weekend that examines the broad questions associated with the historically contentious relationship between conservatives and public funding for media and the arts. Note the pretty badass use of periods.

The NPR Training Team rolled out an “ear training guide for audio producers” last week, which focuses on helping producers identify and prevent common problems related to audio production. There’s also a pretty fun quiz that’s attached to the package, titled “Do you have the ears of an audio producer?” (In other news, I should not be an audio producer.)

“We think the guide is a really helpful resource for podcasters,” Rob Byers, of NPR’s Editorial Training team, told me. “We’re doing our best to get it in front of people as we’re also interested in receiving feedback from folks about what would help them.”

The team is also staging a webinar on this subject that will take place on March 22. Interested folks should sign up here.

In The Dark has started work on a second season, according to an update published last week by host Madeleine Baran and senior producer Samara Freemark. This is, by no means, a surprise, given the podcast’s successful run last year. The show bagged 5.5 million downloads across its first season — impressive for a relatively short, defined, and serialized freshman season that isn’t, well, Serial — and the podcast enjoyed further attention when it was repackaged as a five-part broadcast series and distributed over approximately 150 public radio stations across the country. An APM spokesperson informed me that the combined full-week audience for that broadcast run was over 5 million listeners.

Anyway, the second season will focus on a completely new case. The specifics of that haven’t been disclosed, but in the audio update released last week, Baran noted that the sophomore season will adopt pretty much the same investigative reporting structure. “What we really want to do with In The Dark,” Baran said, “is to try to get at some of the questions in this country that we don’t think are being asked often enough.” The description struck me as fairly generic, one that could well embody the premise of just about any other serious investigative endeavor. For what it’s worth, I thought the show was the best podcast series of last year, hands down, and a big part of what made it unique, for me, had to do with how well the show kept its focus on societal systems while being incredibly thoughtful with the gravity of the story — that is, the fact that a young death pervaded the entire journalistic exploration.

I can’t tell if those were necessarily the elements that resonated with the wider podcast listening audience, which is to say that I’m not sure if it’s moral and intellectual merits that drove In The Dark’s success more than its simply being able to combine a relative high level of quality with the fundamental appeal of the true crime genre. As anybody with working eyeballs and access to the iTunes podcast charts can tell you, true crime is a parodically ubiquitous genre in the industry, so much so that it appears to have been configured as programming policy by networks big and small. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course — aside from the well-established, long-running debate across multiple media over the true crime genre’s moral texture. I’m simply trying to think through whether the team has expressed a clear grasp on its differentiating factors, and whether my interpretation of those factors is legit or simply the idealistic folly of a hopeful fan.

So that’s the shiny APM news. Let’s move over to the one that’s troubling.

On Lewis Wallace and Marketplace. I trust that many of you have already heard about this story by now, but for the benefit of those who have not, I’m going to try and stuff a skeletal recap in one paragraph. However, like everything worth talking about, this predicament is incredibly layered with tons to dig through, and I implore you to actively seek out the details in the stories I’ll link throughout this item to get a better sense of the picture for yourself.

Okay, here goes: Last week, a reporter for APM’s Marketplace, Lewis Wallace, was fired for publishing a personal Medium post — and for doubling down when asked to remove it — that reflected on the meaning, need, and place of objectivity in journalism in the Trump era. The post, titled “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it,” drew heavily from Wallace’s experience as a transgender journalist and, in my read at least, largely played out as a rigorous and thoughtful examination of the issue at hand. Marketplace’s decision to dismiss Wallace was attributed to his “clear violation of the ethics code,” as Deborah Clark, the VP of Marketplace, told the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, which prohibits reporters from publicly pronouncing their politics. “He did not agree — and he does not get to make that decision. That left me with no other options,” Clark told Sullivan.

But in Wallace’s telling of the incident, which was laid out in a follow-up Medium post, he points out that the ethics code argument doesn’t really hold up, noting that “they [Marketplace] were concerned about the section of my piece that asserted that we shouldn’t care, as journalists, if we are labeled ‘politically correct’ or even ‘liberal’ for reporting the facts. (I still maintain that we shouldn’t care, and for the record, I am not a liberal.)” It’s a bit of mess, but regardless of who is right or wrong, Wallace is out of a job, and Marketplace has come under tremendous scrutiny for its actions.

I’ll leave the recap there, and again, I’d like to reiterate that you should round out the story yourself in case you’ve completely missed this last week.

Two things should be noted at this point. First, as highlighted in Sullivan’s column, Wallace does not intend for this kerfuffle to just be about his firing from Marketplace; rather, he hopes that this will be held as a prompt for a much bigger conversation about “the core beliefs and practices of mainstream journalism.” Secondly, Marketplace has been comparatively reserved amid the public conversation that has transpired.

And what a conversation it has been, spanning across a good deal of reporting, follow-ups, and responses. Over at Nieman Lab, Laura Hazard Owen provides the most comprehensive overview I’ve seen so far, rooting the event in an examination of what appears to be a glaring contradiction between Marketplace’s decision to dismiss Wallace and its rejection of a “view from nowhere,” which was a narrative that was pushed as part of its recent initiative to rebrand and restructure to reach a broader audience beyond its aging base. Over at Current’s The Pub podcast, host Adam Ragusea does a good job in his interview with Wallace drawing out his larger thinking and parsing out the various tensions, issues, and questions baked into this story. Meanwhile, Margaret Sullivan’s column contains the clearest articulation of the conundrum for organizations that this incident highlights: “Does a news organization really want to send the message that they would prefer their reporters not think, or not care deeply about the very issues their sought-after diversity is supposed to represent? And that the punishment for standing your ground is dismissal?” At Slate, J. Bryan Lowder interprets this as a signal for “the Coming Crisis of Identity-as-Advocacy,” bringing to attention the inescapable factors of the reporter’s identity and how those could well be weaponized against them regardless of an organization’s given policy. On Twitter, United Public Strategies founder Andrew Ramsammy highlights how this incident “underscores the point on why most organizations don’t understand diversity and how to manage it.” The incident was also examined by On The Media and The Daily Beast.

Given the sheer volume of material that’s already been produced on this matter, I don’t think I can contribute very much that would be novel or helpful. I mean, I have a lot of feelings about it — who doesn’t have a lot of feelings all the time, these days? — and, if pressed, I would say that I can see why Marketplace chose to do what they did, even if I can’t quite find it in me to respect the decision.

But perhaps the thing that I find really heartbreaking about the whole matter is how this episode, in some ways, was a lost opportunity for a real moment of humanity from an institution, a system, that’s sort of meant to promote humanity. Instead of bringing up rules and policy, we could have seen a civic-oriented organization make a choice that was a little more thoughtful, perhaps a lot more difficult but certainly a lot more brave. We could have seen a public-oriented organization express a greater attempt, symbolic or substantive, at embodying a braver, keener sense of empathy. We could have seen a little more understanding in a world where folks that just, well, don’t really want to understand seem to be getting louder and louder. We didn’t see any of that, and man, I feel like all those things are so needed right now, as we find ourselves moving deeper into a time when rules and policies feel more arbitrary and weaponizable than ever before.

Bites:

  • The Guestlist with Sean Cannon, a music interview show produced by Louisville Public Media, has partnered with music label Kill Rock Stars for a new podcast series celebrating the 20th anniversary of Elliott Smith’s Either/Or. The project, called “Say Yes: An Elliott Smith Podcast,” appears to be a marketing initiative designed to lead up to the release of an expanded edition reissue of the record in early March. The episode of Say Yes was previewed on Pitchfork. (Pitchfork)
  • Hey, guess what? The amazing Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This is back with a new season, titled “Dead Blondes.” Rolling Stone has a great interview up with creator Karina Longworth, which you totally check out. (Rolling Stone)
  • CNN announced a new podcast last Wednesday, “Boss Files with Poppy Harlow,” slowly and quietly expanding its roster of original podcasts. What’s going on down in Atlanta? Curious. (iTunes)
  • Charley Locke’s latest in Wired looks at the limited run WNYC-The Economist-Let’s Save America call-in show, Indivisible. (Wired)

[photocredit]Still taken from the final home video of Jacob Wetterling, subject of the first season of In the Dark.[/photocredit]

Hot Pod: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-six, published November 15, 2016.

Outlook. Last Tuesday’s shocking electoral conclusion has severe ramifications not just for the media generally — print and digital, legacy and new, mainstream and alternative — but also for podcasting specifically, whose position as an emerging industry would historically render it more susceptible to the fallout of uncertain economic and media environments. And make no mistake: We are marching straight into a thick fog of uncertainty.

Keep your eyes peeled for two things. First, a potential slowdown in advertising spending. Second, the significant possibility of an economic recession over the next few years, something that was already being predicted prior to this election and that some economists believe could be exacerbated by the proposed policies of the incoming administration. From The Wall Street Journal last Wednesday:

“Uncertainty is bad for ad spending growth,” said Jonathan Barnard, head of forecasting for Zenith, an ad buying and research arm of Publicis Groupe. Still, he said there will not be an “apocalyptic pullback” and just how much contraction occurs depends largely on how the economy performs and what specific moves the new administration makes.

And what of public radio? Keep your eye on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the federally funded organization whose financial support is essential to the health of the public media system. Familiarize yourself with two things:

1. The breakdown of NPR’s revenue sources, articulated best in this blog post from 2013 that highlights public radio’s dependence on CPB funding:

These station programming fees comprise a significant portion of NPR’s largest source of revenue. The loss of federal funding would undermine the stations’ ability to pay NPR for programming, thereby weakening the institution

2. The historical string of on-again, off-again tensions surrounding the system’s perceived relationships with ideological bias.

Executives at podcast publishers are generally adopting a wait-and-see stance on the days to come. At least, that’s what I’ve found based on my email interactions with several over the past week. Many are bracing for impact — one phrased the situation this way: “I am placing higher probabilities on the downside cases in all of our financial models” — though there are a few that believe such concerns to be overblown. (“I wouldn’t worry about it,” one person said.)

“We’ve seen no signs of any slowdown,” Matt Lieber, president and cofounder of Gimlet Media, told me. “Obviously, if a recession happens, then ad budgets will get cut. But to be honest, we’re seeing so much growth in podcast spending right now that, even in recession, I would expect slowing growth, yes, but not negative growth.”

Hernan Lopez, founder of Wondery, submitted a more positive view: “I’ve never seen ad spend decline in a growing economy. In times of general market-driven anxiety, ad budgets may shift from a quarter to the next, or between different kinds of media, and if anything podcasting has more to gain than to lose.”

National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett noted that he remains “cautiously optimistic,” pointing out the strength of 2017 upfront buys and the medium’s steady quarter-over-quarter gains. “Niche media do tend to get cut faster in turbulent times, but I also wonder if podcasting will weather any storm better than history would predict,” he wrote. “We all know how effective podcasting can be in terms of marketers reaching the right audience with the right message. So, I think we’d need a pretty significant economic pullback before any real cuts come, and they’d probably come in line with everything else.”

An executive of an independent podcast network expressed some general concern, but pointed out that even if there is to be an ad-spending cooldown, direct response advertisers would likely stay within the medium, as they’ve already figured out how to assess and achieve the return-on-investments they want. Another person I spoke to posited a similar outcome — there will always be companies looking for people to sell things to, that person said — but did say to watch how companies engaged in direct response podcast marketing will fare moving forward.

We need to move on, but I’ll just quickly note three more things:

  • This climate of uncertainty will be felt by every aspect of the podcast ecosystem, but it will be felt hardest by the community of independent producers and freelancers that provide labor, efficiency, and creativity to the space, these proprietors of small boats in a sea that thrashes from the movement of bigger ships.
  • Given everything that we’re currently seeing in the nexus of media and politics, it seems imperative, now more so than ever, that podcasting remains open.
  • Remember to donate to your local public radio station, people.

Okay, let’s go.

Radio Ambulante inks distribution deal with NPR. The public radio mothership will distribute, market, and promote the show across all of its platforms, including NPR.org and the NPR One app. I’m told to expect collaborations between Radio Ambulante and a number of other podcasts from the NPR newsroom like Code Switch, Latino USA, and Embedded. I’m also told that the show will have a presence on the weekend newsmagazines. The deal came out of conversations that started about a year ago, when NPR approached the Radio Ambulante team.

For the uninitiated, Radio Ambulante is a fully Spanish language narrative journalism project — in the vein of This American Life and Snap Judgment — focusing on stories from Latin America and Latino communities in the United States. The show was founded in 2011 by Daniel Alarcón, Carolina Guerrero, Martina Castro, and Annie Correal. (Castro and Correal have since left the team.) Radio Ambulante is widely loved and critically acclaimed, and received the Gabriel García Marquez Prize for Innovation in Journalism in 2014.

Alarcón told me that the team intends to expand in the near future. “We have to see where we stand early next year, but I think we have to grow in order to fulfill our mission,” he said. “This deal will help us get there.”

The show will roll out its latest season on November 22. The news was formally announced early on Tuesday, but the gossip trickled out at the Third Coast Festival in Chicago this past weekend.

A Serial spinoff? Speaking of Third Coast, I wasn’t able to be there myself this year, but I wish I had been, because this bit of news was apparently announced at a presentation by Serial’s executive producer Julie Snyder. The details, cobbled together from tweets by attendees: A Serial spinoff will debut in March. It will be hosted by This American Life producer Brian Reed, and it will be an “artsy” and “novelistic” seven-part series set in Alabama, following “a man who despises the town he’s lived in all his life and decides to do something about it.” Cool.

Audible expands comedy offerings on its Channels lineup, stacking its deck with audio shows from comedians like Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, and Eugene Mirman. The new slate also features something called “Audible Comedy Specials,” a programming channel that bears strong structural similarities to the comedy special blocks you’d find on television networks like HBO and Comedy Central. It’s kind of a shrewd move, efficiently tapping into the well-established sub-community of comedy podcasts and, on the supply side, offering comedy producers yet another platform to monetize a given performance.

This expansion likely draws from a supply and production infrastructure established by Rooftop Media, the company’s West Coast-based, comedy-focused arm. Audible acquired Rooftop Media back in October 2014.

Meanwhile, in Canada: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) isn’t cool with third-party podcast apps distributing its programming with in-app ads served on top, according to a report by Canadaland. Specifically, the CBC “has sent legal threats to at least one third-party podcast app developer for serving ads without a prior agreement with the broadcaster.” The corporation is also blocking the presence of its programming on those apps. The exact apps that are affected are not confirmed, though the article highlights the Podcast Republic app and also points out the other apps that adopt the in-app ad practice, like Stitcher, Overcast, and Podcast Addict. Hit up Canadaland for more details on this story.

“The wrong format for the moment?” Josh Nathan-Kazis, a staff writer at The Forward, published a string of tweets (a tweetstorm, as the kids call it) that mounted an intriguing critique of the political roundtable podcast format in the wake of last Tuesday’s election. Reproduced here, with some streamlining:

An item for the media post-mortem: The political roundtable podcast turns out to have been exactly the wrong format for the moment…They’re cheap to produce, and fun to half-listen to while doing the dishes.

And there was a lot to talk about. It felt like you could understand the election through the roundtables. Everyone was so smart. Knew what they were talking about. The intimacy inherent to podcasting made them addictive: Hang out with the smart kids each week and they’ll tell you all you need to know.

On Tuesday, it turned out the smart kids were wrong. Some were flagrantly, smugly, obnoxiously wrong. Others were a bit wrong. They weren’t uniquely wrong. But there’s something about that intimacy that makes their particular wrongness feel almost like a betrayal. I wonder how much we really learned from these podcasts. They were closed loops; arguments among friends, played for entertainment.

And were we really trying to learn? Did anyone go to Keepin’ It 1600 or Slate’s Political Gabfest for anything but affirmation? And if that was just 2016’s “unskewing,” then maybe these shows were more harmful than we realized. Ear candy. If we’d spent a bit less time listening to our radio buddies joke about “bedwetters,” maybe we wouldn’t have been so surprised this week. (To be fair, Keepin’ It 1600’s post-election mea culpa episode on Wednesday was really good.)

Put simply: did the political roundtable podcast glut of the 2016 election cycle fail us?

There is a lot to think through here, and I’ll start by saying that the strokes being painted here are way too broad. (And Nathan-Kazis qualified them as such in follow-ups.) At the heart of this critique, I think, are two central ideas: The first is the explicit notion that the insular space created by the roundtable podcast either leads to or creates a greater probability of confirmation bias, and the second is an implicit sense that the media product supplied by these shows exacerbates a potential negative tendency among consumers to use these media products, some journalism and some not so much, as a crutch as opposed to one of many tools of news and information.

The first idea can be straightforwardly interrogated: My immediate reaction is to argue that the risk of confirmation bias here is less linked to the format itself than it is to the participants of the roundtable. Which is to say, it’s not the tool, it’s the wielder; failures, where they existed, were specific to the show, not general to the form. We were awash with election podcasts this cycle, but there were definable differences between shows that were explicitly journalistic in intent (like the NPR Politics Podcast) and shows that were rooted more in a classical sense of punditry (like Keepin’ It 1600, which was consumed by many as therapy and which, interestingly enough, now appears to be the mirror image of conservative talk radio). Those are two very separate product types with very different relationships to the journalistic position, and speaking personally, my experience of what I now recognize to be confirmation bias between the two shows was dramatically different.

The second idea is harder to parse. Essentially, it attends to what appears to be a causal question: does the sense of comfortable insularity conjured by these podcasts somehow discourage listeners from seeking out additional or competing viewpoints? Attempts to unpack the question only leads to further inquiries: is it even possible to prove a causal relationship? Is there a certain condescension in this causal hypothesis — one that suggests news consumers to be anything other than perfectly intelligent adults who will take the time to fully read complex pieces, verify sources, balance out their information intake, and check their biases on their own? To whom does the responsibility of information fall: those who produce the information, or those who consume information? These are fundamental questions akin to those pertaining to corporate social responsibility on the part of the information producers; I am tempted to think that governance is required, but government often seems antithetical to the productive creation and free flow of information.

Nathan-Kazis’ point on the medium’s intimacy triggering a stronger feeling of betrayal hits closer to home, as it highlights the previously unrealized problem that emerges from the design premise of many of these roundtable podcasts, particularly those produced by journalistic institutions like Slate and FiveThirtyEight. The conceit of such shows is to give listeners a sense of what journalists or experts are talking about in spaces separate from the performed professionalism of the public platform; after all, what is said on the front page is far from what was debated in editorial discussions leading up to an article’s final construction or what was discussed on a human level at the bar afterwards. The basic idea in these setups is to engender trust in the people and the process, not just the product. But when the people and the process fail, the cut feels so much deeper, and it is incredibly hard to win that trust — that sense of comfort and safety (which is perhaps the problem?) — back.

That intimacy and sense of process, however, proved essential to how several non-political roundtable podcasts played the role of therapy for many with their post-election episodes. And it is perhaps here that the roundtable conventions are unambiguously valuable. Shows like Call Your Girlfriend, Still Processing, Nerdette, and The Read all provided listeners with personal spaces of communion — spaces to be alone but together, to feel and process the scope of the night’s events, to emotionally prepare for the days to come.

So, did the political roundtable podcast fail us in 2016? Some did, some didn’t; but the problem listeners face is the fact of living in a world where both successes and failures — emerging from both journalistic and non-journalistic sources — exist, flatly, within the same platform, the same space, the same context.

A media format is a tool; it is only as strong, and only as right, as its practitioners. Whether we screw it up or not, podcasting’s core value proposition is always going to be there for us all: a distinct ability to create a space to talk things through, to feel things out, to let doubt grip you. If anything, maybe the lesson here is that we should have leaned more into conveying doubt. A scene from On The Media’s bonus episode, dropped the day after the elections:

Bob Garfield: “What I most hope… is that we are not all passengers on the ship of fools.”
Brooke Gladstone: “What the fuck does that mean?”

Relevant: Melody Joy Kramer on Poynter — “Spread your masthead across the country, and other ideas to prevent groupthink”

Bites:

  • For those keeping tally, add the following companies to the list of brands making their own podcasts: InterContinental Hotel, Avion Tequila, State Farm Insurance. (AdWeek)
  • Refinery29 is launching what appears to be a combined podcast-newsletter product, called “UnStyled.” The last example I heard of such a product combination was WBUR’s “The Magic Pill” project. (Refinery29)
  • “The story so far: Fiction podcasts take their next steps” (New York Times)
  • “Where political talk radio is driven by a sense of community, not partisanship” (CJR)
  • DGital Media launches the latest show under its new partnership with Sports Illustrated, “The Seth Davis Podcast.” (SI.com)
  • Meanwhile, in Australia: The Wheeler Center and the Audiocraft conference are collaborating to launch “The Australian Audio Guide,” “an online companion to the best Australian podcasts and radio features.” (Link)

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