“A step in the right direction,” but “I want more…”: The industry reacts to Apple’s podcast changes

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 124, published June 20, 2017.

Industry responses to the Apple analytics news. Last week’s newsletter was super heavy on my own analysis on the matter, and to balance things out, I’m course-correcting this week with a handy-dandy roundup of some of the more interesting (and, in some cases, telling) reactions from various notable industry folk.

Let’s jump in:

(1) “A lot of indie podcasts already speak to a highly targeted audience, so having this better data gives them more ways to pursue advertising,” Call Your Girlfriend’s Gina Delvac tells Wired. “It’s for people who can’t yet afford the middleman.”

(2) “Analytics. Finally. Industry should embrace, not run from this. Podcast tech is exploding: dynamic ads, data, streaming, scale,” tweeted HowStuffWorks’ Jason Hoch. He adds: “Exciting times to be in the podcast space. From a consumer perspective, Podcasts being treated as equal class citizen w Apps & Music.”

(3) From Norm Pattiz, founder of PodcastOne, when I reached out for comment: “We very much look forward to the release of this new data from Apple. I don’t see how it can be anything but beneficial. Much of what has been indicated is that Apple will be able to confirm and inform about audience and consumption patterns. Though most of that information is available on a number of platforms, having Apple provide further insight and confirmation is nothing but good.”

(4) From Rob Walch, of LibSyn, when reached for comment: “In the end, Apple giving this info will be good for podcasting — they were the only one in a position with enough clout to do this.”

(5) From Chris Morrow, of the Loud Speakers Network, when reached for comment: “I don’t doubt the impact is going to be significant, but do think it will be a while before we start to feel it fully. On a network like Loud Speakers, probably close to 90 percent of the ads are still Direct Response, so the attitude for the foreseeable future will be ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ But if six months from now a few big agencies make it clear that they’re going to be buying based on Apple’s new metrics, then we’re going to have to pivot quickly.”

(6) Eric Nuzum, SVP of original content at Audible, hit up my inbox to say that conversations about the value of the new data layer should only be focused around two things: ad validation and editorial feedback. “All the rest: it’s trivia. Not actionable. But like most data, people will overuse, over-examine, and over-literalize. It’s human nature to assume data contains answers. It doesn’t,” he wrote.

(7) From Market Enginuity’s Sarah van Mosel: “This is certainly a step in the right direction. This is what we asked for and I thank the Apple team for hearing and responding to the podcast community. Now I want more… I want to be able to track individual ad campaigns via third party server… on-demand audio ad tags that will work on the Apple Podcast player.”

Of all the responses to the news that I’ve read so far, I find this argument from Tom Webster, he of Edison Research and the Infinite Dial study fame, to be the one that stuck with me the most. Let’s dig into it.

The optimization trap. They say you are what you measure, but what does it mean if you’re not actually in control of what you can measure?

That’s probably the biggest thing I took away from Webster’s post, which he published on Medium over the weekend, though by no means is it the only story here. I highly recommend reading the whole thing to get the full nuance of it, but here’s the basic framework of the argument:

  • The new Apple analytics is a largely positive development for the industry on the whole, even when you account for the various shakeouts, resizing, and resetting of expectations and conduct that it’s going to trigger across the space.
  • However, this development will likely strengthen Apple’s position as the defining metrics-provider for the industry — a state of affairs some have described as a stranglehold, and that should be some cause for concern.
  • Why? Because it doubles down on an ecosystem where publishers will be further incentivized to optimize just for Apple. “Any measurement/ratings system is a game, and the winners aren’t the best operators,” Webster writes. “They are the ones that best play that game, even to the detriment of the medium.” Aside from the garden-variety concerns associated with stacking all your bets on one (opaque, sometimes capricious) horse, there’s a grander downside at play here: while the introduction of Apple’s new analytics might be productive in deepening relationships with a broader set of advertisers, it is nonetheless a development that incentivizes publishers as a class to keep their focus on Apple — therefore constraining the ecosystem very much within Apple’s boundaries.
  • And what do those boundaries mean? As Webster points out, it’s worth keeping in mind that Apple’s consumer base, while very large, is nonetheless still very specific and non-universal in demographic. Which is to say, it isn’t everybody — and deliberately so, to some extent. As such, should the industry be pulled along this dynamic, the podcast industry’s outer boundaries will always be defined (and therefore limited) by those of Apple’s. That, to be sure, is not a good thing.

“I call that ‘the optimization trap’: When we optimize to fit the universe we already have, we make a smaller and smaller universe happier and happier,” Webster concludes. “This is why, although access to enhanced Apple statistics is generally good news for now, the industry cannot and must not stop innovating towards a non-platform-specific measure.”

Webster adds that he holds out hope for NPR’s Remote Audio Data initiative. And what is that, exactly?

Remote Audio Data. It’s a technology initiative to carve out that non-platform-specific measure by setting an open industry standard for publishers and third-party distributors in the space. The initiative was originally conceived long before the Apple news, and in its wake, the enterprise takes on additional gravity. In some ways, you could frame the effort as an opportunity for the industry to wrest a little more control over its narrative back from Apple.

The initiative is being led by National Public Media, the sponsorship arm of NPR. They’re working with Triton Digital to develop the measure, which is being piloted on NPR One at the moment. News of project first appeared publicly earlier this month, with appearances in stories by AdExchanger and Inside Radio from early June.

I reached out to Bryan Moffett, the chief operating officer of NPM, for more details, and he was kind enough to oblige with a blog post-length statement.

“Remote Audio Data is a model for improving podcast listening data,” it began. “The premise is that publishers have a right to know what happens to their content when it’s distributed by third-party platforms.” He goes on to explain some of the technical aspects of how the model would be implemented:

There are two parts to RAD. First, a method for publishers to add metadata to audio files that describes important points in the file. These could be quartile markers for the content, markers for where meaningful content starts and end in an episode, or markers for sponsorships or promotional elements of an episode. Part of the encoded data is a URL where playback platforms should send data events. In this way, everything is self-contained in the file.

The second part is a lightweight way for playback platforms to read this metadata and send pings back to the publishers when those key audio events are heard by a human. The current spec is designed to make this anonymous listening data — no personally identifiable information (PII) is passed. We want to know if a human was listening to our content, not which human.

A lot of this, I should also point out, is contingent on NPM being able to effectively build a coalition of publishers and third-party listening platforms to adopt the model. That, in my mind, would’ve been difficult before the Apple news. Interestingly enough, I suspect there’s a lot more incentive to jump on this boat moving forward. Anyway, the statement touched on this later on:

Right now, we’re working on a second pass at the spec after much discussion with industry stakeholders. Once that version reaches consensus, we hope to build support for RAD across the industry, and bring stakeholders like the IAB and others into the discussion to help.

I followed up to ask Moffett if he viewed Apple’s participation as integral to the initiative’s success. “Not at all,” he wrote back. “It’s just as vital whether Apple participates or not. We still need something to measure listening for the third of our audience not on Apple’s platforms, and that ecosystem is very splintered…If they participate we have the benefit of the same apples-to-apples method across the industry (hopefully!). If they don’t, we at least have comparable metrics we could likely amass together to get at listening.”

You can read Moffett’s whole statement here.

Notes on branded podcasts. While the bulk of the discourse around how the new analytics layer will impact podcast advertising focuses on in-episode ad spots (rightfully so), don’t sleep on the question of how it’s going to impact branded podcasts as well. It’s reasonable to presume that the increased ability to understand in-episode performance of branded podcasts will give advertisers a more tangible idea of whether their highly involved form of content marketing is really building a connection with targeted audiences, giving them even more leverage over the agencies they commission in setting rates and ordering follow-ups. On the flip side, the new analytics layer does have the rather productive side effect of more directly aligning the editorial feedback loop with the branded podcast performance feedback loop, which is interesting.

Here’s a relevant AdWeek article from last week: “Thanks to nearly 8 million downloads, GE remains bullish on branded podcasts.” A key data point from the write-up:

In 2015, GE launched its first branded podcast called The Message under the umbrella of the GE Podcast Theater platform… leading to 4.5 million downloads as of November. After launching a second podcast late last year, the two programs have been downloaded another 3.2 million times in the past seven months and 7.7 million downloads overall.

Hmm. Looks like Life/After didn’t match The Message’s performance after all…

And while we’re on the subject of branded podcasts… Keep an eye on this really interesting piece of execution: On She Goes, a travel podcast for women of color hosted by Call Your Girlfriend’s Aminatou Sow. The show is part of a larger digital platform launched by the ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, and the agency commissioned Pineapple Street Media to produce the podcast.

Gimlet cancels Twice Removed. The celebrity-studded family history podcast hosted by AJ Jacobs will not be coming back for a second season, the company announced in a Facebook post last Friday. “Ultimately, Twice Removed proved too complicated to produce on a consistent basis,” the post read. “As part of our commitment to making the best podcasts possible for our listeners, we decided it was best to sunset Twice Removed, and refocus our efforts on making other great shows.” The podcast only published six episodes during its run. I’m told that all full-time Twice Removed staffers have been reallocated to other projects within the company.

Twice Removed is the fourth Gimlet podcast to be discontinued, following Undone (which cited a tight market for hiring editors as the principle reason), Sampler (which reallocated host Brittany Luse to a new project), and Mystery Show (which was super complicated in a bunch of ways). A fifth, Surprisingly Awesome, was recently restructured and relaunched as a whole new IP, called Every Little Thing. The news comes about two weeks after the company announced it had acquired The Pitch, a Shark Tank-esque business podcast hosted by Josh Muccio. It’s only the second time the company has brought on a show already in the market, the first being Science VS, which Gimlet acquired from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in early 2016.

On Twitter, friend-of-the-newsletter Nick Guy sees this as part of a larger trend for the company that expresses its “seeming willingness to swing for the fences and admit when it doesn’t work.” It’s an entirely plausible read, though I will say my own fixation with this story is one that ties back to my write-up on Gimlet’s acquisition of The Pitch from two weeks ago: what, exactly, constitutes a Gimlet show, and how does that question factor into cancellation decisions? (Apropos of nothing, I’m crossing my fingers for the return of Heavyweight.)

A new resource for Spanish-language producers. This is really cool, and very much needed. Radio Ambulante, the Spanish-language narrative journalism project that recently struck a distribution and marketing deal with NPR, has rolled out a set of online resources in Spanish for aspiring Latin American and Latino producers. Operating under the name “Escuela Radio Ambulante,” the project comes out of a partnership with Transom.org, the beloved online education resource for audio producers, and Hindenburg Systems, the Danish audio editing software company. There will also be paid fellowships associated with the project, offering the opportunity to work with Daniel Alarcon and the Radio Ambulante team to learn the story development process from start-to-end. Applications for that will open up later this year, so keep an eye out.

I’m told that Radio Ambulante CEO Caroline Guerrero developed the project when she was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford, and that it’s mostly funded through grants at the moment. You can learn more on the project’s website.

And while we’re on the subject of producer education and support… I hear that applications for AIR’s New Voices Scholarships for 2017 are now open. Go, go, go!

Talent agencies and the podcast industry. It doesn’t take a lot of looking to notice that talent agencies are growing increasingly involved in the podcasting space — not just in brokering deals for the top layer of companies, but also in picking up talent from certain pockets of indie podcast publishers.

But for many producers, indie and otherwise, talent agencies might seem strange and opaque — and that’s even more the case within the context of the budding world of podcasts. So, to get a better sense of what talent agencies do, why they’re increasingly interested in the podcast industry, and what they’re looking for, I traded emails with the very nice Ben Davis, an agent at William Morris Endeavor, one of the largest agencies in the country.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you briefly walk me through what you do as an agent at WME?[/conl]

[conr]Ben Davis: An agent’s job is to represent the interests of talent and properties across media — this includes strategizing, sourcing and negotiating deals on a client’s behalf. Through the representation of talent an agent packages projects together, then manages the project’s market to find the best home for it.

I’m an agent in the Digital department at WME. Digital covers several emerging areas within the media industry, and podcasts are a fast (very fast) growing piece of that.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Which podcasts have you worked with?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: Some of the podcasts I’ve worked with are:

Freakonomics Radio; Tell Me Something I Don’t Know; Pod Save America (and the Crooked Media network); Limetown; 36 Questions; Crimetown; Missing Richard Simmons; Revisionist History; Lebron James’ Uninterrupted Network; Under the Skin with Russell Brand; The Tony Kornheiser Show (with our sister company IMG producing); Unsolved Murders.

While the role I played in each of these podcasts is different, I typically negotiate the terms of a show’s deal with its respective distribution partner or network. When applicable, we also sell podcast IP into TV, film and other media.

For example, with Pod Save America/Crooked Media, we connected the team to DGital and structured the terms of their relationship.

In the case of Limetown, we signed creators Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers after it hit — and helped explore derivative opportunities for the IP. They are now developing Limetown for television (with IMG serving as the studio), sold the prequel to Simon and Schuster, and received a separate film script deal at Warner Brothers. We’re currently helping them with distribution and casting of their upcoming podcast musical, 36 Questions.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Could you describe what drives WME’s interest in the podcast space?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: WME’s is interested in any creative medium that drives culture, and podcasting’s impact on culture is undeniable.

Podcasts are a source of compelling new voices and properties. Not only has this created an exciting business in it of itself, but also one that feeds into other areas that we work in. For example, WME has been involved with crossing podcast properties such as a StarTalk and Men In Blazers into television.

At the same time, podcasting is a new medium for our clients from other areas, whether it is Malcolm Gladwell or Amblin, to create and experiment in. Clients can also own their distribution in a way that is not traditionally possible in other areas of the entertainment business.[/conr]

[conl]HP: My understanding is that talent agencies — WME, of course, but also CAA (Creative Artists Agency) and UTA (United Talent Agencies) — are playing an increasing role in (some layers of) the podcasting industry, though podcasting itself as a sector might not necessarily be growing as quickly within talent agency portfolios. Is that accurate, and what is your view on where we are now with talent agencies and the podcast industry?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: I can’t speak for the other agencies, but podcasting is growing very quickly within WME.

Agents are most useful with shows that have added complexities within their agreements. Is there a guarantee or advance? Who controls the RSS feed? Could this become the next hit TV show? This only applies to a segment of the market, typically higher budgeted or otherwise premium shows.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Where do you think this relationship between talent agencies and the podcast industry is going?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: I think talent agencies will play an increasingly important role in the ecosystem by:

— Helping podcast creators cross IP over into other media (whether that is audiovisual, live or written).
— Pairing creators with the right distribution partners, and negotiating the terms of the relationship.
— Packaging creative elements (i.e. talent and writer) to create turnkey audio productions for distributors.

The space is changing so quickly, though, and my answer would have been different 6 months ago. So really, who knows?[/conr]

[conl]HP: What are the most important things that you think podcast publishers should know about talent agencies, if they don’t already know?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: It’s amazing to me how podcasts have emerged as a longer-form medium with insanely engaged audiences, in a world where traditional media is fighting for the attention of distracted and fragmented consumers. In this current environment and in the future, those with an engaged audience have an enormous opportunity. Talent agencies provide a platform to maximize the impact and value of that opportunity.[/conr]

[storybreak]

You can find Ben on Twitter at @benjamin_davis, though it doesn’t look like he tweets much. I guess you can hit up his LinkedIn instead.

Bites:

  • Not content with its business-to-business position in the market, AudioBoom — best known, perhaps, for repping the popular Undisclosed podcast — is getting into the original programming game. This comes after some restructuring and what appears to be a rigorous PR push, with the company pumping out a few studies about the podcast industry into the public sphere. (Press release)
  • Heads up, Jesse Thorn fans: the Maximum Fun proprietor has a new ~summertime~ project where the famed interviewer interviews interviewers about interviewing. The guest lineup includes Terry Gross, Larry King, Werner Herzog (!!), and Audie Cornish, among others. And interestingly enough, it’s being distributed in partnership with the Columbia Journalism Review. (website)
  • The first advertising network for the Amazon Echo’s Alexa Skill ecosystem has shut down in the wake of an Amazon policy change that bans advertising for third-party products and services. (TechCrunch)
  • The New York Times’ The Daily is going to test a guest host as Michael Barbaro heads off for a summer vacation: Caitlin Dickerson takes over the mic. (Twitter)
  • BuzzFeed audio fellow Alex Laughlin is conducting a survey on audio producer salaries. Go take it. She posted some preliminary findings on Twitter yesterday.
  • NPR is funding two pilots off its Story Lab program: “Midnight Oil” from Alaska Public Media and “Inter(Nation)al” by an independent production team. Cheers, folks! (Press Release)
  • One of these days, I’m going to build out a bracket for Podcasts by Major Media Companies. We’re going to have to add some upcoming stuff from The Atlantic to the list now, which is currently on the lookout for its very own (short-term) podcast producer, it seems. (The Atlantic)
  • Poynter owning the “McClatchy getting into podcasts” beat. Kristen Hare’s latest is on Biloxi’s Sun Herald and its podcast about LGBT issues, Out Here in America. It follows Ben Mullin’s write-up on Majority Minority and Beyond the Bubble, two politics podcasts from McClatchy DC. No specific download numbers were present in either write-up, unfortunately.
  • Rooster Teeth, the Austin, Texas-based digital media production company focused on gaming content, has launched a new business unit focused on podcast creators. “The company is hoping to gather between 30 and 50 creators for its network, and it’s already peeled a couple rising stars away from its bigger competitors,” Max Willens reports. (Digiday)
  • Signl.fm, a platform focused on making podcasts more searchable, is part of the latest Matter.vc class. (Nieman Lab)

Apple’s new analytics for podcasts mean a lot of change (some good, some inconvenient) is on the way

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 123, published June 13, 2017.

We’ve got a lot to talk about.

“It may look obscure,”tweeted Gimlet’s Matt Lieber, “but this is the biggest thing to happen to the podcast business since Serial first went nuclear.” Lieber was talking about a major announcement that came out of the podcast session at WWDC, the Apple developer conference, which took place on Friday. It was a piece of business delivered with relatively little fanfare — par for the course, I think, with the nature of Apple’s historically chill relationship with podcasts —  and Lieber’s right. This is a very big deal, and a lot of change is on the way.

Here’s the headline: Apple is finally opening up in-episode analytics for podcasts. The data will be anonymized, consistent with Apple’s general stance on privacy, and the new analytics layer is scheduled to arrive with the iOS 11 update this fall. This means that podcast publishers will, at long last, receive data that tells them just how much of their episodes are actually being listening to — within the Apple Podcast app, at least, which is still largely understood to serve the majority of listening. (Estimates, however sampled, tend to range between 60 and 80 percent). Previously, podcast consumption was chiefly conceptualized based on downloads, a black box metric that’s criticized as lacking the level of granularity that are table stakes for advertisers buying on digital platforms in 2017. With this announcement, that measurement issue — long articulated as the defining problem of the medium — can finally be meaningfully interrogated, with many believing that the hurdle impeding advertisers from committing more dollars to the space can be thrown out the window.

But some are also arguing this change will bring a mixed bag of consequences, and in some ways, the new data puts the space at risk of snuffing out various dynamics that make it special. Which is to say, while there’s a hope that this will finally lead to podcasting realizing its full economic potential, the shadow of Web 2.0 looms large.

The WWDC session also contained a few other useful announcements, including a design overhaul for Podcasts app and new extensions to feed specifications that would give publishers more control over how they can present episodes within RSS feeds. Among other things, publishers will now have the ability to bundle episodes by season and signal which episodes are actual content versus extras like trailers. Noted Apple writer Jason Snell has a good rundown on this over at his blog, and you can check out the spec document here. And as I mentioned last week, this is probably what the redesign looks like, courtesy of this Reddit thread. (Once again, your mileage may vary with sourcing Reddit.)

But let’s get back to the analytics stuff. Since Friday’s announcement — which you can watch in full at this link, but only on the Safari browser, because Apple — there’s been a ton of writing appraising the matter, and in case you’d like a quick primer, I recommend this write-up by Recode’s Peter Kafka, which also contains screenshots of the upcoming analytics dashboard. (I’m going spelunking in some rabbit holes here, so a primer this is not.)

Here, we’ll attend to wonkier questions: What does this new analytics universe portend? How will the podcast business change? If so, who wins and who loses?

I wasn’t born a prophet, so I don’t know how exactly this will play out, but I do have some notes and assessments on a bunch of the key issues. This write-up is by no means comprehensive, and I’ll be exploring more questions in future issues as we deal with the consequences of announcements. For now, let’s jump in, and we’ll move through a bunch of topics.

Just double-checking: Is this really a big deal?

Yep, I’m pretty certain it’s massive, but it’s worth weighing the counter-argument. Even if Apple serves a majority of all listeners, the argument goes, it doesn’t account for the whole listening universe, and as such there might be muted effects to how this ends up moving the way business is being done. I’m not sure I’d buy much stock in that view: first, not only does most listening quantitatively happen on Apple, the company is qualitatively synonymous with the space. Second, there still doesn’t appear to be a strong alternative to Apple with a big enough consolidated market share that could meaningfully challenge (or avoid) the way Apple defines audience measurement. Which means that, in June 2017, it’s still feasible to think that whenever Apple says jump, most folks are still pretty much going to make like Durant.

How will the new analytics layer change the way we currently understand podcast audiences in the aggregate?

A couple of parts to this:

(1) Many believe that an ecosystem-wide audience resizing is in the cards. Because the vast majority of podcast audience appraisal is conducted based on downloads — and because we don’t actually know what happens to an episode after it’s downloaded — the way podcast audiences are represented, understood, and sold is almost certainly going to change. Just about everyone I spoke to frames this in terms of some form of downsizing, which makes intuitive sense, because there will always be some percentage of episodes being downloaded that are left unlistened (and ads left unserved). But the positive spin I’m given is that this change nevertheless comes with a higher level of accountability, and the gains in trust from advertisers will likely lead to much greater gains over the long term.

As Matt Turck, Panoply’s chief revenue officer, puts it, “I’m assuming we will see listener numbers fall short of download numbers; however, the benefit to making analytics far less mysterious should vastly outweigh the concern.”

(2) That said, there remains the possibility that the new in-episode analytics layer might reveal inconvenient truths about audience behavior. I’ve been told there are a few non-Apple tools and platforms (like Spotify and some third-party listening apps) with in-episode analytics already in the market, and while they only supporting a minority share of listening, the consumption data they’ve been collecting suggests there’s nothing especially revolutionary hiding in those new numbers.

Aaron Lammer, of Longform and Stoner, is one among the skeptical. “I would push back against the idea that there is some great insight lurking in these analytics,” he said when we chatted over Twitter. “As people who’ve set up elaborate app-based analytics hooks where you can track everything will tell you-there isn’t that much interesting… I’d rather look [at] it as standardization rather than revolutionary shift.”

That point on standardization, I think, is really important to file away in your head.

(3) Bryan Moffett, the COO of National Public Media, made a good observation on how the proliferation of dynamic ad insertion technology might mean the transition to an in-episode analytics world would still contain tricky imprecision.

To quote him in full:

A dynamic ad server will serve up many different versions of a single episode. They could vary in length by a few minutes or even more. For example, if one user gets an episode of TED Radio Hour with four dynamic :30 sponsorships and a :30 promotion block in its hour of content, but another user for some reason gets the same episode with just two :30 sponsors, the length difference is over a minute and the content is not aligned minute by minute for each episode.

Apple’s analytics rolls up all listening to a given episode and averages, so there is bound to be some imprecision. It’s not a lot, and it’s certainly a better world than the one we live in now.

It’s never easy shifting gears.

How will the podcast business be affected?

Time will tell, obviously. But here’s the range of the thinking out there:

(1) As I mentioned, there is a sense from some bigger publishers that this new analytics layer will finally allow them to kick open conversations that may meaningfully unlock long coveted brand advertising dollars. Contrary to direct response advertisers, whose intended outcomes (and measurement methodologies) additionally revolve around conversions off promo codes, brand advertisers are generally thought to require a higher level of trust in the impressions being reported back to them. Podcasting’s black-box download-oriented measurement universe has long been described as the primary hurdle preventing brand advertisers from allocating more dollars to the medium, and it is believed that Apple’s in-episode analytics are a significant first step forward in opening up conversations between brand advertisers and podcast publishers across the system (conversations that have to do with perception as much as actualities).

(2) But how does this development affect the direct response side of the podcast advertising business? There’s a general belief among the folks I’ve talked to that direct response advertisers, or performance-based advertisers, will likely be stable, though there appears to be suspicion that the new analytics layer presents yet another horizon of opportunities for those advertisers and their respective agencies to haggle more over prices. I’m also being told that there are expectations of some oncoming turbulence/fluctuations in price points, as those advertisers go through the process of figuring out how to integrate this new data layer into their current practices.

(3) There are two versions of the apocalyptic view on the business end. The first takes the shape of some worries about ad-skipping, and what the new analytics layer is going to reveal about the extent of this behavior. (For more background on this, read this Wall Street Journal from last summer). The end-times scenario is said to be one where it’s discovered that podcast ads are skipped over at such a volume and intensity as to kill their value. On this front, the responses seem to generally track along the built-in split between brand advertising and performance-based advertising; there is a sense that, even if there is a problem, it would mostly affect the former, while the latter would remain somewhat stable, because conversions are still taken to be more important than impressions. Again, the positive spin I’m served ties back to a sense of greater accountability that the new analytics layer brings into publisher-advertiser interactions: we’ll know who is actually providing value to advertisers, and we’ll know who isn’t doing so as much. As Midroll chief revenue officer Lex Friedman said, “Podcasters who are confident that people are listening to their ads should be very happy about this.”

The second apocalyptic argument presents a scenario where podcast CPMs plummet, ultimately leading to the collapse of the market. This view generally draws on a parallel between podcasts and what happened to blogs once the format started experiencing waves of ad tech development. Personally, I can’t quite see the specifics of how this move by Apple could bring those dynamics to podcasting just yet. My understanding of the plummeting blog CPMs pegs the phenomenon to the continuous structural devaluing of blog advertising real estate brought on emerging ad technologies that gave advertisers (and ad tech companies) unchecked leverage. And while I think the broader risk of podcasts possibly going down the road of blogs is absolutely real, I don’t have a sense that this new analytics layer alone automatically leads to a devaluing of podcast advertising real estate. If anything, Acast’s recent rollout of a programmatic podcast advertising product is more likely to incur those types of effects, should the tool ever get traction — this development from Apple strikes me as a step forward that’s small enough to stop short from these effects.

Who wins, who loses?

(1) Obviously, publishers who have made a practice of inflating download numbers will get checked — though the counterargument that all metrics, without active third-party verification, can be gamed over time is certainly a prudent one.

(2) An argument can be made that this system-wide shift to a new analytics standard would usher in a weeding-out period. Podcasts delivering strong ad value will get additional data to strengthen their appeal for more advertising dollars, and podcasts not doing so will be flushed out of the ad market. It would mean that high-performing podcasts would be in a better position to extract more value, while not-so-high-performing podcasts would have a harder time accessing advertising dollars.

(3) It should be considered that whatever audience readjustments happen will probably disproportionately and negatively impact smaller podcasters’ ability to derive advertising revenue. Which is to say, just as how every publisher experiences the turbulence of discovering that its meaningful listening audience size is probably going to be smaller than its downloads, smaller podcasts will be whipped around harder, and in some (if not most) cases, that could lead to those shows falling beneath a certain threshold for advertising consideration. That’s bad for podcasts with already relatively small but meaningfully engaged audiences. In these cases, there are presumably two available moves: first, lean deeper into a niche that maintains a specific appeal for relevant advertisers, and second, pursue other non-advertising revenue streams.

I suppose, generally speaking, it’s worth keeping in mind that advertisers need to be served value too, and also, advertising isn’t necessarily the only business model available to publishers.

Content considerations. Metrics and measurements have long informed the way programs are created, and we should probably expect to see the dynamic express itself further with the new analytics layer. A couple of threads to consider:

(1) Knowing just how much of episodes are being listened to presents a much better feedback loop to improve not just editorial products, but also advertising products. And there is also the likely effect that we’ll see the blossoming of new formats, genres, and show structures that come from playing toward what the new metrics tells us.

(2) On the flip side, there should also be room for the more general worry that we’re sliding into a world where metrics outweigh creative decisions. I think there’s always room for that concern, regardless of whatever metrics are available — there will, to some extent, always be operators looking to play to the numbers rather than actually use the numbers to make better work.

(3) I’m pretty drawn to the question, raised here on Twitter by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, of whether increased data granularity within a medium would lead to the detriment of experimentation within that medium. Instinctively, I feel as if there is some truth to this, but I also suspect experimentation has less to do with the available metric universe and more to do with the ways in which compensation is structured off those metrics. (A quick tangent: I also find myself wondering how “experimental” material is defined; personally, I tend to grade experimental-ness relative to however the medium currently behaves, and think experimental programming will exist in any format regardless of where it is in its life cycle. I think the more interesting question here is about the conditions under which “experimentation” can exist within high-budget and high-scale productions.)

I’m not even close to being done, but I’ll leave it here for now. Obviously, this enormous and complex development contains many, many layers, and I’ll continue to dig around and write about them in future issues. (I mean, that’s why Hot Pod exists, right?)

Here are some of the questions I’ll be thinking about:

  • To what extent will podcasting go down the road of blogs, and what does that even mean? And should podcasting end up experiencing those same dynamics, what are the differences based on audio as a media format?
  • How will the podcast industry change? Will the professionalizing publishers benefit as they hoped for? What will happen to smaller and indie podcasters?
  • How will podcasting change for audiences?
  • Will we see the industry create more jobs for producers, developers, and assorted media folk?
  • How will the development impact what I’ve described as the bifurcation of the space, with podcasts as extension-of-blogging on one side and podcasts as extension-of-radio on the other?

As for my own normative view on all of this, I’m still figuring it out. I do think that the podcast industry is indeed still comparatively tiny, as Recode’s Peter Kafka points out, with podcast ad spending projected to only be about $250 million this year. While it’s growing at a solid and steady rate, it’s still peanuts compared to where radio (about $14.1 billion) is today, and there’s more to be gained and lost from changing how business is being done today. And like Kafka, I do think change was going to happen no matter what.

Also, as I mentioned on Twitter, I find myself skeptical about the nostalgia and privileging of the status quo. But that’s a story for another day.

Roman Mars, Esquire. New Hampshire Public Radio’s Civics 101 has some new competition in the form of a somewhat surprising side project from the 99% Invisible chief: “What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law” is an explainer podcast that features Mars being taught the basics of constitutional law by UC Davis professor Elizabeth Joh based on ongoing developments in the current iteration of the White House. I’m told that the podcast is officially produced under the Radiotopia banner, which brings the number of Radiotopians with two podcasts up to two (the other is Hrishikesh Hirway, who makes both Song Exploder and the West Wing Weekly for the indie podcast collective). Mars’ new podcast comes mere days before the launch of another new Radiotopia podcast, Ear Hustle. That’s scheduled to roll out later this week.

Career spotlight. Spend enough time in the New York podcast scene — or any major city with a podcast scene, really — and you’re bound to bump into someone who came up through WNYC, which was once the city’s only major institution dealing with narrative radio. In this week’s Career Spotlight, we’re bumping into Leital Molad, who currently leads podcast development for the Pierre Omidyar-backed First Look Media.

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you do?[/conl]

[conr]Leital Molad: I’m the executive producer of podcasts at First Look Media. In a nutshell, I develop and produce podcasts for The Intercept (First Look’s investigative news site) and Topic (our entertainment studio). Right now we have two podcasts in production, Politically ReActive and Intercepted. I oversee those shows week to week, working with the producers, giving editorial notes, and liaising with our business team on the marketing side. The other big part of my job is taking pitches for new shows, creating pilots, and bringing projects to launch. Since I got to First Look last October, we launched three shows: Maeve in America, Intercepted and Missing Richard Simmons.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Where did you start, and how did you end up in this position?[/conl]

[conr]Molad: I started as an intern at WNYC in 2000. The next year I got a full time job as a production assistant for Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, and spent the next 15 years working on that show, ultimately running it as senior producer. My last year at WNYC I launched and EP’ed a health podcast, Only Human. I started thinking about my next career move and figured that this podcast renaissance was a great time to break out of my cozy public radio cocoon and try something new. So I took the leap and went to First Look — a media startup that was just getting into podcasting.[/conr]

[conl]HP: How did you learn to do the job?[/conl]

[conr]Molad: WNYC was an amazing place to learn everything I know about radio and audio. I got to wear many hats, ranging from basic show production — booking guests, writing scripts, cutting tape — to reporting my own stories, producing documentaries, and running live events. And I learned a ton about launching new shows after working on Only Human, which has been very helpful in my new job. Also, having been in the trenches with audio production (which I love), I can be a better manager of producers and engineers. Getting new shows off the ground at a startup often means being able to jump in on production when needed, and that’s been invaluable.[/conr]

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

[conr]Molad: After college, I didn’t land on what I wanted to do until I was brainstorming with a family friend who offered to help with some career advice. He asked me, “If you could have anyone’s job, who would it be?” Right away I said, “Terry Gross.” He said, “Well, that’s what you need to do!” I had been a DJ at my college station and an avid listener of public radio, and those two things just clicked. I wasn’t sure how to become the next Terry Gross; eventually I figured I should go to journalism school. So I came to New York for grad school at NYU, and then, very luckily, landed the internship at Studio 360. My dream of hosting evolved into an appreciation and desire for producing, which I fell in love with.  Maybe I’ll still host a show some day, we’ll see!  (You know, they say anyone can start a podcast with a laptop and a microphone…)[/conr]

Molad adds that she’s on the lookout for more female voices, and that interested parties should get in touch. You can find Leital on Twitter at @leitalm.

Bites

  • ESPN has rolled out the podcast feed for its upcoming 30 for 30 audio adaptation. The first episode is set to drop on June 27. (website)
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History is coming back on Thursday. (NY Times)
  • WBUR is launching a storytelling podcast aimed at kids. (WBUR)
  • Looks like the Chapo Trap House team has bagged themselves a book deal with the Simon & Schuster imprint Touchstone Books. On a related note, I’m hearing that the podcast channel is increasingly fruitful prospecting ground for book publishers. (Twitter)

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)

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

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

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

Three quick things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

Is Audible’s big entry into podcasting innovative enough to push the field forward?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue seventy-nine, published July 12, 2016.

Audible pulls Channels out of beta. Well, it’s finally here: The spoken audio entertainment arm of Amazon has officially launched Channels, a new “short-form audio”-focused subscription service that will come packaged with the originally audiobook-oriented Audible app. The service has been in beta since April. In case you missed the writeups by The New York Times and Bloomberg, here’s the low-down: The feature is available to existing Audible members (who already pay $14.95 a month for the service) and will cost $4.95 a month for non-members who want access Channels content without having to deal with those pesky audiobooks. Offerings range from audio digests of publications like Forbes and Harvard Business Review to standup comedy recordings to ad-free versions of popular podcasts like WNYC’s Radiolab and Radiotopia’s The Truth.

Oh, and original Audible programming, of course. I mean, that’s the real cause for speculation and excitement, isn’t it? The service launched last week with four original products — an interview show featuring writer Ashley Ford called Authorized; a texture-driven documentary series about New York City called Mortal City that, quite frankly, is more than a little reminiscent of Radio Diaries; a Mary Roach-esque narrative show featuring stories about the human breast by writer Florence Williams called Breasts Unbound; and another narrative show that serves quirky stories about American presidents hosted by historian Alexis Coe and comedian Elliott Kalan called Presidents Are People Too! — along with the teaser for an upcoming project called The Butterfly Effect, which will feature the offbeat stylings of author and occasional This American Life contributor Jon Ronson.

“You’re seeing the first half dozen this week,” Eric Nuzum, Audible’s senior vice president of original content, said in a recent interview with Nieman Lab, referring to the original programming rollout. “But what will surprise people is how often we’re putting out material at the level we’re doing.” According to the writeup, the rate translates to about one new show every one or two weeks, with 40 projects being baked in the pipeline. Seasonal considerations will also impact rollout decisions. When we spoke at the Podcast Movement conference in Chicago last week, Nuzum told me to keep a particular eye out for the launches in September, hinting towards the release of more interesting projects during that period — a choice that was made to reflect generally higher on-demand audio engagements in the fall compared to the slower summertime.

So here it is: the long-awaited play from the 500-pound gorilla that’s been creepin’, quietly but surely, at the edges of the podcasting pond. The question is, of course, whether Audible can convert its infinite pool of potential into some form of tangible dominance over non-music audio. And will it fully change the way we think about, produce, and consume the stuff we used to throw over the airwaves and down RSS feeds?

Time will tell, obviously. But three things for now:

    • Audible has, to some extent, already won the battle to become the “Netflix for podcasts,” or “spoken audio,” or whatever it is you want to call non-music audio programming. After all, the company long ago beat the fundamental barrier to entry for any subscription content business: a critical mass of paid customers, which it cultivated and solidified through its years outmaneuvering and outpacing its relatively technologically flat-footed competitors in the book publishing business before sidestepping into podcasts and non-music audio content more broadly. By expanding its understanding of the product it serves and reducing audiobooks into one of many product categories that it will deal with, Audible instantly holds a tremendous structural advantage over any newcomers — including Howl, Midroll’s own attempt at a subscription audio content play that mixes back catalogues with original programming.
    • That said, Audible’s opening structural advantage can still be undermined in the long run, with the key battleground being the strength of its inventory over time. And while we’re literally in Channels’ first month at play, I will say that its initial slate of original programming strikes me as conceptually underwhelming. None of the Audible Originals seem particularly fresh, either in terms of subject matter or sheer structure and form. Authorized can be shuffled into a deck made up of Longform, Writers Who Don’t Write, The Guardian Books Podcast, and Between the Covers. Breasts Unbound can be slotted into a stable made up of Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, and Only Human. And even Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect seems to be the product of fairly straightforward strategic thinking — so straightforward, in fact, that Panoply’s already done it, except with Malcolm Gladwell.Which is not to say that the shows aren’t good, or that I won’t eagerly pay $4.95 for the privilege of consuming some if not most of these projects. I enjoy Presidents Are People Too! a hell of a lot, and I will gleefully suck all the marrow out of anything Jon Ronson whips up. It’s just that the slate feels a lot like something you’d call Audiobooks+.

      (Alternatively, the goal may well be to produce shows that are structurally familiar to other podcasts but are either best-in-class or good enough, to a point where Audible users are satiated enough to not go looking for shows of similar categories off the Channels platform. Programming is only part of the value proposition; convenience is another.)

      And that’s a bit of a shame, considering Audible’s sheer potential to take insane risks without having to worry about conventional audience goals driven by advertising needs. Give me a musical, give me neo-Finnegan’s Wake, give me whatever’s the audio equivalent of Broad City or Terrence Malick. Give me something I’ve never heard before.

  • But perhaps that was never the direction Audible was meant to go. I’m reminded of something Nuzum told me for a Q&A I ran back in April: “It really is not a question of what shows we create. The question we ask is: What do people want to listen to?” And reckoning, for a moment, with the fact that the Audible data that informs Nuzum’s thinking is essentially data about audiobook consumers, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing these projects: more Jon Ronsons, more Mary Roach-esque compositions, and so on. When people indicate what they want by indicating what they once wanted, there’s only so much you can see beyond the frontier.Which raises the question: Who, then, will bring us to the next, next thing?

A curious partnership in ad tech. AdsWizz, a digital audio ad tech company, announced the launch of something called PodWave last week, which the company bills as “the first ad marketplace specifically created to meet the needs of podcasts.”

What does that mean, exactly? The theoretical purpose of a technologically-enabled advertising marketplace like PodWave is to serve as the platform upon which publishers can sell ad spots and marketers can buy them more efficiently. What “efficient” means can play out in a number of ways, including (1) the enablement of transactions at scale, (2) the increase of control among advertisers and marketers over the shape and depth of their campaigns, and (3) a similar increase in expectation and accountability of returns through stronger metrics, improved targeting capacities, and the implementation of best practices and creative executions, among other things. Podcast advertising, in its current form, still remains relatively high-touch and artisanal, with advertisers and agencies working directly with publishers to make bids, process buys, and evaluate campaigns. (Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; such high-touch advertising workflows are probably desirable for podcast publishers that want full control over their value narrative and sales processes.)

AdsWizz’s press release didn’t get specific on how the platform measures up to those markers of efficiency, but what’s notable is its partnership with National Public Media (NPM), the sponsorship sales arm for NPR and PBS. NPM’s involvement with AdsWizz appears to be significant, with Ad Age reporting that NPM will assemble a “special team to sell PodWave and help marketers tailor their messages” in the podcast format — a situation that sees NPM playing a sort of ambassadorial role aimed at recruiting publishers. According to the Ad Age writeup, AdsWizz CEO Alexis van de Wyer has stated that “over 500 shows and publishers will participate” in the marketplace, though he declined to provide specific names. We’ll see how the marketplace shapes up, and whether marketers will bite, in the months to come. I imagine that if AdsWizz’s gambit is successful, it could encourage more advertisers to invest in the medium.

This is the second time in recent months that NPM has thrown its weight and reputation behind another company in an effort to encourage industry-wide formalization. When the podcast measurement company Podtrac announced its industry rankings project back in May — an initiative that could well help more advertisers ease into medium — NPM chipped in on the accompanying press release, with NPM general manager Bryan Moffett providing the quote: “With Podtrac’s monthly industry rankings and unique audience metrics, advertisers now have a view of not only the combined audience size across NPR’s many podcasts, but can compare our reach to other publishers to more accurately plan their podcast media buys.”

Smooth moves, NPM. Smooth.

High-level staffing changes at NPR. Some personnel changes to note at the public radio mothership, with some major implications for folks shopping around their projects:

  • Steve Nelson is the organization’s new director of programming. He was previously American Public Media’s director of on-demand programming, where he led the launch of the Infinite Guest podcast network in August 2014 which distributes on-demand versions of The Dinner Party Download, Too Beautiful To Live, and KPCC’s The Mash-Up Americans, among others. Nelson will reportedly front NPR’s “new anchor entertainment weekend programming” and assist with new podcast development. He starts in August, and will continue working from his current base in Minnesota.
  • N’Jeri Eaton joins NPR as senior manager for program acquisition, where she will be in charge of sourcing new external talent and programming to be brought into the organization. She was previously the content development and initiative manager at the Independent Television Service, an organization principally backed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that supports the development of independent filmmaking. According to the press release, Eaton will the organization’s “first point of contact for program idea pitches from outside contributors to NPR,” so keep that in mind, folks!

Also: Israel Smith has been promoted to senior director of promotion and audience development. He was previously the organization’s director of programming, the role that Steve Nelson now holds.

Two new distribution points for Libsyn. Last week, the stalwart podcast hosting platform company announced that podcasts hosted on its platform can now be consumed on iHeartRadio, the digital audio arm of iHeartMedia, the media giant formerly known as Clear Channel. The service reportedly has more than 85 million registered users, though it should be noted that its monthly active user count is unclear. (For comparison: Pandora has 250 million registered users and 78 million monthly active users around the end of 2015, according to Digital Music News.) Still, it’s a new point of access for podcasts, and I suppose it’s also worth noting that iHeartRadio’s app is one of the stronger brands available on connected cars.

Also worth noting: This isn’t iHeartMedia’s first foray into podcasting. The company previously partnered with livestreaming/podcast hybrid company Spreaker in 2014 to serve as a distribution point for its content, and back in June, it collaborated with the coworking space company WeWork to produce what appears to be a branded podcast about entrepreneurship. That podcast initiative was part of a much larger project called Work Radio, which involves iHeartRadio developing a live radio station for the WeWork network of campuses. Yep, it’s strange, but frankly, so is much of the radio industry.

Libsyn also debuted a new feature last week that lets its users publish podcasts on YouTube more easily, according to a MediaShift writeup. The measure and depth to which audio-only podcasts (as opposed to video-audio podcast hybrids) are consumed on YouTube remains unclear on the aggregate, but certain networks — like Night Vale Presents and the Loud Speakers Network — have seen considerable engagement on the platform in the past when they’ve repackage their episodes as videos with static images. (Depending on the show, both networks enjoy YouTube views in the tens of thousands. Examples can be found here and here.)

Cool.

Bites:

  • From a panel at the recent Podcast Movement conference: The IAB will be releasing a standards guideline for podcasting metrics sometime in the next quarter.
  • The nascent L.A.-based Wondery network picks up the increasingly popular true crime podcast Sword and Scale, expanding its true crime and audio drama-heavy lineup to ten shows overall. This development comes shortly after the announcement of the network’s first original production, Found, which is set to premiere on July 13.
  • A couple of ESPN job postings have been kicking about indicating the organization’s intent to develop an audio-version of its insanely popular 30 for 30 documentary brand. Having just burned through much of the series’ eight-hour doc on O.J. Simpson, I’m incredibly psyched for this. (Disney Careers)
  • John Sheehan, a producer on WHYY’s Fresh Air, has a new podcast for kids called The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified, and it’s oodles of fun. It also appears to be the product of an internal station competition — one of those bakeoffs I keep hearing about — according to a writeup on Current. Terry Gross previewed it on the Fresh Air podcast feed last week. (WHYY)
  • And while we’re on the subject of kids podcasts, here’s a related read: “Who says kids don’t have podcasts? Here are 18 choices from public radio” by Melody Joy Kramer. (Poynter)

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

The podcast collective Radiotopia has a new leader

The new steward of Radiotopia. PRX has hired Julie Shapiro as the new executive producer of Radiotopia, the podcast ~collective~ that was formed in early February out of a partnership between the company and 99% Invisible’s Roman Mars.

Shapiro comes into the job with a tremendous street cred. In 2000, she cofounded the Third Coast Festival which, in case you didn’t know, is a big independent radio conference/summit/party in Chicago (“Third Coast,” get it?) where really talented and smart radio producers get really drunk together, play some really amazing stories, and have a really good time. She spent 13 years as Third Coast’s artistic director, where she firmly established herself as an incredibly influential figure in the independent radio community and beyond. She left the role in 2013, and has been spending the past couple of years kickin’ it with the wallabies down in Australia, where she served as the executive producer of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Creative Audio Unit.

Oh, and fun fact about Shapiro from the press release: “Julie originally coined the term ‘Radiotopia’ in a speech at the Third Coast Festival, describing it as a place where awesome stories live.” It was meant to be.

janye

What will Shapiro do as Radiotopia’s new executive producer? A heck of a lot, PRX COO Kerri Hoffman told me over the phone last week. On a show level, she’s tasked with upping the game of every podcast under the Radiotopia banner, which will include (but will not be limited to): working with talent to raise and maintain the level of editorial quality, figuring out how to increase revenues, finding ways to foster deeper engagement with audiences, and developing robust strategies to help shows grow in general. On a network level, Shapiro will help define Radiotopia’s long-term strategic vision and articulate its narrative to the larger market, which, in my opinion, hasn’t always been very clear. ((In fact, I’ve always wondered: What, exactly, is Radiotopia? Why the heck is it a “collective”? What makes a show Radiotopia-worthy? What does the network stand for? Who does it target? Does it dream of electric sheep?)) She will also, I presume, play a huge role in sourcing new shows to add to the group, along with improving metrics, measurements, and standards both qualitative and quantitative.

That is, indeed, a crap ton of things to do, but Hoffman is confident she’s up to the challenge. And you know what? There’s nothing to suggest otherwise. Everything I’ve heard about Shapiro paints her as nothing less than a swashbuckling badass, and furthermore, ever since I started poking my nose around the radio world, I keep hearing stories about her being a great mentor to many a young fledgling producer. To me, that willingness to actively think about the next generation of producers is shorthand for proper leadership.

Also: “It’s super important to me that Radiotopia’s executive producer be a woman,” Hoffman said at some point during our conversation. You know what? It is important, particularly after seeing a parade of white dudes absolutely dominating executive-level positions in the blossoming for-profit on-demand audio industry. This is certainly encouraging stuff.

Also also: PRX CEO Jake Shapiro wrote me yesterday to clarify that, in fact, he is not related to Julie Shapiro. “However we do feel we’re part of a Shapiro mafia in public radio that includes Ben Shapiro and two Ari Shapiros (Ari Daniel and Ari at NPR),” he added. That is some Highlander business right there.

Shapiro starts work in November.

Anyway, let’s talk more about Radiotopia! It’s such a weird thing, and it’s in my top 10 of favorite things to think about.

So, in my mind, Radiotopia is the closest thing to the platonic ideal of a podcast network. Deeply committed to quality, the collective is also uniquely far-reaching in its thinking about genre, conventions, ideas. No two shows under the Radiotopia umbrella sound alike; in some ways, each show feels like a distinctly differentiated thesis, or some sort of gambit, like each show is placing a different bet on the way things should sound. There is boldness to the range of shows that are in Radiotopia: a range of voice, tone, genre, idea, ideal, vision, hope, limitations, trajectory. (Abstaining from using the word “diversity” here, lest I mishandle the political context of that word.)

Many folks have described Radiotopia as a hippie commune, no doubt due to its nonprofit, public media-minded origins and relative looseness with the concept of maximizing revenue. Being the raging, conniving capitalist that I am, I tend to agree with this characterization. And there’s something about the way it’s structured that compels me to be curious: I’m going to guess that not all shows perform equally — in fact, I’m going to rampantly speculate that the range of those performances are huge — and looking at how, well, spotty some of the show’s episode release schedules are, I wonder about financial resources are distributed across all the shows, and I wonder if there are any hangups when it comes to feelings of equity within the collective. But this is just me thinking out loud; there’s probably nothing to that.

Besides, I’m actually more partial to a metaphor given to me by an actual Radiotopian: that the collective is best thought of as an “indie record label” — where a tastemaking entity validates many autonomous visions by providing financial and technical backing. That’s a pretty cool way of looking at it.

Anyway, for the record: My all-time favorite Radiotopia show is most definitely Criminal. That show is so RIDICULOUSLY good it literally makes me angry. Like absolutely pissed. I punched a wall once I was so pissed. It’s crazy. (Song Exploder comes in as a tight No. 2, but docked points because Hrishikesh Hirway wasn’t able to bag the Bieber before The New York Times got their grubby hands on him.)

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Gimlet president: We need a reliable third party to “set an industry standard.” Gimlet president and tallest-man-in-the-world Matt Lieber has that and plenty more things to say in this interview with the Tow Center at Columbia.

You should give the article your click, but two things to note:

  • Really enjoyed his response to the “Why would a successful show stick around a podcast network?” question. Money quote: “He hopes that by ‘super-serving’ the creators with editorial support and a sense of community they will be incentivized to remain within the network for the long term.” Of course, that works for some setups and not others, but that’s definitely one way to skin a cat.
  • Lieber’s point on initiating direct relationships with brands is absolutely essential to understanding the unique value-add that podcasting brings to advertisers. It’s also really interesting to think about the way host-read ads are typically baked into episodes in the context of the larger ad-blocking scare looming over the rest of digital media. (Assuming ad-blocking is a problem: Recode’s Peter Kafka remains skeptical, unless I’m reading him wrong.) Though, if you really think about it, once this whole dynamic ad-insertion thing kicks in, the race is theoretically on for ad-blocking tech to impact audio, perhaps even before the tech hits scale. Hmm.

Anyway, moving on.

BuzzFeed director of audio Jenna Weiss-Berman on Nieman Lab’s Press Publish podcast. This is good Weiss-Berman material. Probably not that user-friendly to link to an entire podcast episode, but the whole thing is most definitely worth a listen.

Highlights:

  • Young people listen more straight from SoundCloud, eh? Interesting.
  • “Co-optition.” Cute, but I totally dig it.
  • Note Jenna’s thinking that situates Another Round within a much larger multimedia — specifically, television — context. Question is not whether it will be successful (oh you know it probably will) but how the heck do you create that workflow?

NPR’s 10 years of podcasting. Tasty NPR Extra article here on the institution’s history with podcasting, complete with a timeline and a quick anecdote that sees National Public Media general manager Bryan Moffett, then a marketing analyst, crossing paths with the men who would go on to create (and fight over) Twitter. Anyway, check out the whole article, but here are some delicious numbers to take away:

  • “Between NPR and all of the public radio stations who contributed shows to those first collections in the directory, it took about a year and a half to reach 80 million downloads.” I’m guessing that’s total downloads across the whole network.
  • “Last month, we had 76 million downloads for just those programs NPR produces or distributes.” Daaayum.

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“Wanting to be heard.” The Toast ran this article on podcasting and representation last week, and it’s a great read. Give the whole thing your attention, but here are some quotes that really stuck with me:

  • Nia King, host of We Want The Airwaves: “If I can self-publish a book and sell 1,000 copies, what is the incentive for me to have a press that’s not going to help me with touring? It’s just unclear whether I’m better off working within the system or without. Because at least now I have complete creative control.”
  • Stephanie Foo, This American Life: “I think that as the content has started to change, the listenership has started to change. We finally have podcasts that are made for younger people now.”

Audio fiction. So, uh, I’ve been working on an item about audio fiction for about, well, four weeks now, and I’m having a lot of trouble hammering down what I really think about the genre. Now, if you’ve been following this newsletter for a while, you’re probably acquainted with my largely negative feelings about most audio fiction that can be found on the market right now.

But here’s the thing: I actually believe that audio fiction is the growth market in on-demand audio. I just think that the genre hasn’t been done right, or has been done in a way that can compel non-partisan listeners to legitimately think that it’s up to par with most other forms of mainstream entertainment. (In fact, if I ever did work up the gastrointestinal fortitude to go solo and run my own ship — or marry rich and live off a spousal bonus, either way — a big part of what I’d do would be bankrolling very specific audio fiction projects.) I think about it quite a lot, and because I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot, I haven’t been able to settle on what I want to say.

Anyway, while I’ve been sitting here and twiddling my thumbs, these two things dropped and I really think that you should check them out ASAP:

  • Nieman Lab’s writeup of the Limetown podcast. Money quote: “They’re not purposely trying to fool anyone, but their background in film has given them a refreshing view on podcasts: Why can’t they be more like movies?”
  • The Pub podcast: Ann Heppermann on the rebirth of audio fiction.

Cool? Cool. I’m going to go back and work on this audio fiction item a little more, which is now about 2,500 words long and looks suspiciously like the Little Red Book, which is why I’m probably going to junk it and just do a 500-word rant instead.

Maybe next week.

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An update on that SXSW panel I’m working on. So last week I mentioned that I’m trying to organize a panel at SXSW about podcast audience growth — strategies, philosophies, challenges, and so on. That’s still happening, but there’s been a change: the great Gretchen Rubin can’t do the panel, because she’s double-booked, so the third panelist will be Midroll’s vice president of business development Erik Diehn.

Before going to Midroll, Diehn was the senior director of business development at WNYC, and before that, he had stints at Bloomberg and the Boston Consulting Group. (You know who else did time at BCG? Matt Lieber. Small world.) Which is all to say, compared to the other two panelists — BuzzFeed’s Weiss-Berman and Longform’s Max Linsky — Diehn’s bringin’ the corporate game.

Should be fun, if we get enough votes, of course.

You can vote for the panel here. Please note that you’d have to create some sort of login to vote, which kinda sucks and I’m so sorry.

Oh man, that was a long one. All right, have a great week, see you next Tuesday!

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