BuzzFeed Lays Off In-House Audio Team

In case you missed it, this was the big podcast news that drove casual discussions about the industry over the past week: last Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that BuzzFeed has laid off its in-house audio production team, perhaps most famous for people of color-driven shows like Another Round, See Something Say Something, and Thirst Aid Kit, in favor of reallocating its resources towards the company’s video operations. As a result, the majority of its podcast portfolio will cease production. In an all-hands meeting on Thursday (covered by BuzzFeed’s Steven Perlberg on Twitter), the company’s leadership noted that the decision to continue the in-house audio team was driven by difficulty finding a big audience — not a decision that was driven by a financial calculation.

Don’t miss the second part of the development, however: the company will adopt a production model similar to that of its television projects — “that is, treating shows as individual projects, with teams brought on as needed,” as Shani Hilton, VP of news and programming at BuzzFeed News, wrote in an internal memo cited by the Journal article. I imagine that arrangement will be deployed only if the company chooses to pursue another foray into audio at some point in the future, which isn’t a given. A deep-dive into BuzzFeed by The Information, published yesterday, tells the story of a company that’s shifting away from a production culture of broad experimentation towards a more resource-conscious one that’s stricter in the number of bets it’s planning to take.

In other words, what happened to the BuzzFeed’s now-dissolved audio team is a little more nuanced than what’s been driving the takes: the story of the PodSquad, I think, is mostly about a team that made great contributions to podcast culture, but was ultimately rendered a casualty of strategy.

Who needs video? Slate is pivoting to audio, and making real money doing it

Slate Outlook. This is a tad newsier and more with-the-pack than I generally like to be, but whatever — there’s a bunch of juicy, usable stuff in here.

Slate readers woke up this morning to something big from the 22-year-old online magazine: a total redesign, complete with an overhauled backend to improve the site’s user experience and a new logo to mark its third decade of publication. Accompanying the aesthetic revamp are significant adjustments to the site’s editorial architecture — including, among other things, a reorganization of its content verticals and, of course, a long-overdue push to make its substantial audio output more prominent across its web presence.

“We look at the redesign as a recommitment to the written word and audio,” Julia Turner, Slate’s editor-in-chief, tells me. She also notes that those renewed commitments are, in part, a reaction to the “pivot to video” gambit employed elsewhere in the digital media ecosystem, increasingly lampooned these days either as folly or a cynical ploy to extract dollars from the unstable hype surrounding digital video. “We’re planning to expand editorial spending on podcasts and articles,” she said. “There are good economic models behind both.”

We’ll stick to the audio portion here, of course, and our primary interest is to get a sense of just how strong that podcast business model is for Slate. Turner dished out some numbers to set the scene:

  • Slate enjoyed 100 million downloads in 2017 across its entire podcast network, not counting shows under the Slate Extra banner.
  • Podcast downloads are said to be up 42 percent from 2016.
  • December proved to be Slate’s biggest podcasting month, driven in good part by Slow Burn (more on that show in a bit), with 3.5 million downloads across the period.
  • Slate’s podcast advertising revenues were up 36 percent in 2017 over 2016, and the company expects continued growth this year, or so it is said.

(“We like to share when they’re happy numbers,” Turner said, when I expressed marvel over the volume of information being provided.)

But perhaps the most telling data point is this: In 2014, podcasting made up 0 percent of Slate’s revenue portfolio. By the end of 2017, that number has shot up to 25 percent. Whether that number continues to grow over the next few years will be something to watch. Unsurprisingly, the company expects growth in all key revenue areas — including display advertising and membership dollars in addition to podcast advertising — which, if true, would stabilize the growth of Slate’s podcast advertising dependency. But I do find it compelling to contemplate a future in which Slate primarily operates as a podcast publisher with a significant written web engine that functions as an effective lead-generation tool. (Thereby ultimately adhering to the construct sketched out by Stratechery’s Ben Thompson in his November 2015 piece, “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.” Indeed, such a result would create an unexpected homology between Slate and Grantland’s successor, The Ringer, if I’m reading the latter correctly.)

Anyway, depending on how you look at it, one could interpret Slate’s podcasting fortunes either as a product of luck or persistence, maybe both. Slate’s adventures in podcasting began over a decade ago, in 2004, and as Andy Bowers, who joined the company around that time as its OG producer after a twenty-year career in public radio, is fond of telling it, the site’s early audio dabblings involved publishing recordings of him reading articles out loud into a microphone. (Some ideas never really go away.) Those experiments would eventually evolve into shows with more substantial discursive formats, which would then go on to cultivate strong communities over an extended period of time. Digging through the archives and thinking back on that era, one could argue that there was no real reason for the company to continue producing those podcasts beyond simple enjoyment and serving those early communities; hence the notion of luck and persistence. But sticking to the experiment paid off, as that commitment ultimately primed them to be particularly ready for this historical juncture in digital audio publishing.

Nowadays, the Slate podcast network is a sprawling 24-show portfolio that’s spread across various Gabfests (a model that it pioneered across multiple shows and that is widely emulated these days by other online publications dabbling in the medium), some personality-driven shows (The Gist, Dear Prudence, etc.), and an emerging bucket of more ambitious projects. Bowers, after a long tenure as Slate’s EP of podcasts, went on to cofound a podcast-specific sister company, Panoply, in early 2015, and his role has now been passed onto another bald public radio veteran: Steve Lickteig.

2017 proved to be an interesting year for Slate Podcasts. Most prominently, it struck a curious partnership with Studio 360 last summer, taking over coproduction and digital distribution responsibilities from WNYC (where the show had been housed since its launch in 2000) as well as physically bringing the team into its offices. The network also steadily rolled out a suite of new shows, including a Spanish-language Gabfest and a few highly-produced narrative projects.

One such narrative project was Slow Burn, the Leon Neyfakh-led narrative podcast that sought to capture a sense of how it felt to live through Watergate, which I largely enjoyed and reviewed for Vulture last week. It turned out to be a hit for the company — not just as a standalone podcast project, but also as a lead-generation vessel for its membership program, Slate Plus.

Even though the core Slow Burn experience is available for free as a weekly podcast, a Slate Plus membership gives Burn-heads access to bonus episodes and other additional material. The carrot was apparently effective. “We’re seeing conversion at an extraordinary rate,” Turner said, noting that the Slow Burn campaign yielded 2.5× to 3× the daily conversion rates of an average day. “We’re seeing a ton of overlap between audio audiences and Slate Plus,” she adds. Plans are now in place to develop the property further, including an upcoming live event at the Watergate itself and a broader vision to untether the podcast from Watergate and use its conceit as a way to build future seasons around other historical events.

Slow Burn’s success should give Slate some extra confidence for the upcoming shows they’re planning to launch this year. Projects in the development pipeline includes:

  • A documentary series led by the author Michael Lewis, of The Big Short and Moneyball fame, about umpires.
  • A project built around Slate TV critic Willa Paskin, which I’m told will neither be a chat show nor an interview-show.

One imagines there will be more to come.

The notion of an online magazine entering its third decade is a wild thing to consider. (I’m not too much older than the site itself, which was founded in 1996.) Even wilder is the challenge of continuing to exist — and to fight for relevance — as a digital publication in a notoriously rough industry environment whose narratives are generally oriented around the downswings of the hype cycle these days. In its relative geriatricity, Slate now has the opportunity to contribute to a playbook that few digital publications get the chance to write.

Some odds and ends:

  • I’m also told that, as part of the changes surrounding the redesign and internal shifts, Slate will be taking over its own podcast sales from its sister company Panoply, which previously held that responsibility. A spokesperson explained the change as follows: “Since Slate podcasts are separating from the rest of Panoply, the direct response advertisers that Panoply was calling exclusively for the total network — including Slate — will, starting Q2, be called on by Slate sellers for only Slate’s network of shows. Panoply will continue to call on them for Panoply shows. Obviously, Slate very much believes in Panoply. We are creating this structure so that Slate and Panoply can each focus and do what it does best.” This separation is, of course, quite curious for Panoply.
  • It is not lost on me that the Slate Political Gabfest, one of the network’s oldest and most prominent shows, is hosted by three people who are no longer full-time Slate employees: David Plotz (now the CEO of Atlas Obscura), Emily Bazelon (now a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and senior research fellow at Yale Law School), and John Dickerson (installed last week as cohost of CBS This Morning). This is both a testament to the legacy that Slate Podcasts has created across its run, and an indication of a potential vulnerability.
  • Speaking of Dickerson, Slate’s podcast chief Steve Lickteig confirmed that Dickerson will continue with the Slate Political Gabfest and Whistlestop.
  • As part of the editorial restructure, the Double X vertical is being phased out as its previous responsibilities become absorbed by all other verticals (there are now five: News & Politics, Culture, Technology, Business, and Human Interest). But the Double X Podcast will continue to operate, serving as the living connection to the vertical’s legacy.

Panoply loses its kids chief. I’ve confirmed that Emily Shapiro, the director of children’s programming, has left the company. Shapiro was originally hired in January 2017 to lead the emerging division, which is primarily built around the Pinna platform. I wrote about Pinna when it first rolled out last October.

Panoply declined to comment on Shapiro’s departure, citing a strict policy on discussing personnel matters.

Prior to joining Panoply, Shapiro was the cofounder of the New York International Children’s Film Festival — considered by some critics as one of New York’s best film festivals — where she worked for almost two decades. Her departure comes at a particularly hot time for the kids podcast genre, including recently launched pushes from WNYC Studios and Gimlet Media, along with long-running efforts from the Kids Listen community.

WBEZ is working on a follow-up to Making Oprah. But it won’t be about Oprah. Brendan Banaszak, the station’s interim executive producer of content development, confirmed the project over email, and noted that they’re applying the “Making” conceit to another Chicago figure whose identity will be revealed at a later date. (A move not unlike what Slate is hoping to do with Slow Burn.) Jenn White will host once again.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really into the idea of “Making” as a podcast template for local public radio stations across the country in the vein of the Hearken-powered Curious City franchise expansions. I would love a Making-style show for Idaho. (Aaron Paul??)

Science Friday joins the WNYC Studios portfolio. The move was announced last Friday. Here’s what that means:

  • WNYC Studios will lead sponsorship sales for the Science Friday podcast along with its spinoff show Undiscovered.
  • Starting April 11, WNYC Studios will take over distribution responsibilities for the Science Friday radio broadcast.
  • Science Friday remains an independent nonprofit media organization, and will continue production as usual in their current studios and offices.
  • WNYC Studios will also assist in the scaling of Science Friday’s audience, along with fielding opportunities for potential future creative collaborations between the two organizations.

This development bears strong resemblance to the August 2015 Snap Judgment move to enter into a coproduction deal with WNYC, the specifics of which you can read in this Current writeup from the time. In this case, however, Science Friday is breaking away from its distribution ties with PRI, with whom they’ve had a relationship since January 2014.

“We love PRI — they’ve been great partners, and our audience is bigger than its ever been” Christian Skotte, codirector and head of digital at Science Friday told me. “For us, as we look forward into the future, WNYC has shown how to launch and market podcasts, and as we think about what our future looks like, we’re thinking beyond just being a radio show and podcast towards being able to create whole new suites of content.”

Science Friday is currently celebrating its 27th year of production.

This week in the revolving door:

  • Eleanor Kagan, the director of audio at BuzzFeed, is leaving the company to join Pineapple Street Media. This move comes almost a month after BuzzFeed announced that it was parting ways with Another Round due to “strategic changes” at the company. Worth noting: Pineapple was cofounded by Jenna Weiss-Berman, who originated the podcast team at BuzzFeed.
  • Jessica Stahl, who originated The Washington Post’s current audio operations in her role as deputy editor on the audience team, has been promoted to director of audio. In related news, The Washington Post’s audio operations launched seven new podcasts in 2017, including two specifically for smart speaker devices.
  • James Green, cofounder of the Postloudness collective and a former producer at Gimlet Media, is joining The Outline to work on its daily show, World Dispatch.
  • John Lagomarsino, audio director at The Outline, is moving to Anchor to serve as head of production. It is a newly created role.

Wait, Anchor has a head of production now? Yep. But the gig is more a product role than anything else. “Ultimately, I’m responsible for making sure content on Anchor is high-quality, well-curated, and relevant for creators and listeners,” Lagomarsino tells me through a rep, before going on to describe a role that liaises between Anchor’s userbase and the company’s product, marketing, and content teams.

For the uninitiated, Anchor is a mobile-oriented app that originally rolled out within the “Twitter, but for audio” construct. That initial orientation was defined by a twin focus: ease of creation and ease of sharing. The company was founded in 2015 and, after picking up some initial buzz at SXSW the year after, has persisted to kick about in pursuit of a place within the marginally iterating podcast technology ecosystem. Last fall, Anchor raised $10 million in a Series A round led by Google Ventures. According to a TechCrunch writeup at the time, the company is still not generating revenue.

The current iteration of Anchor further increases its focus on creating the “easiest path to making a podcast” for the biggest number of people (the bulk of which, one imagines, is relatively inexperienced in audio production). This positioning was expressed last July, when Anchor seized on the reported instabilities at SoundCloud — previously the go-to hosting option for first-time and newer podcast publishers — by offering easy hosting transfers. It was a shrewd move, as the two services map nicely for their target demo given that both platforms are free and relatively simple to use.

How Anchor fits into the broader on-demand audio universe remains to be seen. Will the platform continue to be the lord of its own content universe, or will it meaningfully usurp portions of the technology stack that supports the rest of the podcast ecosystem? The answer hinges on whether CEO Mike Mignano’s thesis on the space pans out.

“The reality of the current landscape is that podcasting has remained an artificially small industry, because it’s so hard to contribute to,” Mignano wrote through a rep. He continued:

Between the friction that exists at nearly every step of the content lifecycle, and the antiquated technology that the industry has relied on for years, creators are left with limited data and limited opportunity for monetization, thus capping the potential of the market. We’re well past the breaking point where innovation across the entire stack is absolutely necessary for growth.

With Anchor, we’re focused on creating technology that strengthens the entire ecosystem and unlocks the true potential of the audio landscape. I expect Anchor to have a lot of competition in the coming years, which we’re excited about, because true innovation is ultimately going to come from technology pushing the boundaries of what’s previously been possible.

I happen to agree with the characterization of podcasting as an “artificially small industry.” The question I’ve kept encountering throughout my years writing this newsletter is whether that’s actually a bad thing.

Billboard outside ATL, Georgia. Atlanta Monster, the new true crime series from Atlanta podcast companies HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot, appears to be playing around with OOH advertising local to the Atlanta city area:

Neato.

“Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network.” So goes the opening argument from Gimlet’s new chief marketing officer, Jenny Wall, which headlined a quick Fast Company piece last week, as she moves to elevate the company’s profile.

This is, of course, no new revelation for Gimlet, which has pretty explicitly highlighted its formalizing intellectual property pipeline — carved out in large part by Chris Giliberti, its young “head of multiplatform” — as both differentiating factor and exceptionally strong potential growth channel. Nor is it a particularly new revelation for the industry as a whole; as I noted in my 2017 year-in-review column, the adaptation pipeline is one that extends widely across the ecosystem (though with particular concentration within the audio drama category) and offers the industry a significant pathway to gain strength independently from the platform dynamics governed, still, by Apple. Nor is Gimlet the only entity that’s been exceptionally active in ushering podcast-first properties into projects for other mediums; Night Vale Presents has proven to be equally prominent, with the added nuance of not potentially burdened by the demands of venture capital.

But I thought the quote was interesting for three reasons:

  • It’s super reminiscent of HBO’s “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” campaign that Wall worked on earlier in her career, which I pointed out last week when writing up her appointment.
  • I was wondering when Gimlet would explicitly make the “actually, we’re not just a podcast company” turn in its narrative. It’s a mindset that you could arguably trace back to a point as early as the company’s participation in the summer 2016 Brooklyn NewFronts event, where it sought to gain association with broader digital media brands like Genius, Atlas Obscura, and Lenny Letter. Perhaps you can trace it back even further.
  • One potential function for the narrative redraft: to open and grease more paths for acquisition. It’s one thing if you’re a podcast company whose most literal suitors would be a bigger, traditional audio company — see Cadence13 and Entercom — but it’s another thing altogether when your perceived value is non-medium specific. It definitely makes things more interesting for, say, a talent agency, or perhaps even a global advertising agency not unlike the one that chipped in $5 million into Gimlet’s recent investment round.

Bites:

  • Like Slate, This American Life has also undergone a redesign, which includes a new shock-red logo. I think the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri said it best: “Congrats to @ThisAmerLife on its new job as The Economist.” I myself, er, am not a fan. (Website)
  • Last Thursday, ESPN Audio rolled out the first episode of a new podcast from Katie Nolan, who joined the sports media giant from Fox Sports in October.
  • The Loud Speakers Network is bringing back its brand collaboration with State Farm, Color Full Lives, with Aminatou Sow and Angela Yee in the hosting seats. Interestingly, this will be the branded podcast’s third season. They’re also set to experiment with an accompanying video component. (Apple Podcasts)
  • At CES last week, NPR published a new smart speaker study that has some additional data points for your pitch decks. Check it out.
  • This is cool: closing out her third season, Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth graphed the gender ratio and racial diversity of the guests she brings onto her episodes. (Flash Forward)
  • This is also cool: Doree Shafrir, author and senior tech writer at BuzzFeed, is independently publishing a podcast called Forever35, which is focused on serving women in their 30s and 40s. This is her second indie podcast project, following Matt & Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, which chronicles her and her husband’s experience of conceiving through in-vitro fertilization.
  • Meanwhile, on the Beltway: Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) has jumped on the politician podcasting train with one of those shows where he talks to people doing stuff he’s likes. He joins senators Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), along with former U.S. Attorney General Preet Bharara, in the style.
  • “Pandora CEO Roger Lynch Wants to Create the Podcast Genome Project.” Okay. (Variety)
  • “The Opening of the American Mind: How Educational Podcasts Are Making Us Smarter Citizens.” (Pacific Standard)
  • “Alexa, We’re Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With You.” (NY Times)
  • PodcastOne announces partnership with the Associated Press around a daily audio news product accompanying the Winter Olympics. (Press Release)
  • “Whatever it is, I’m not afraid of what happens after death.” Don’t miss this glorious conversation with Terry Gross by Vulture’s David Marchese.

Next week, we’re talking crypto-pods.

Correction: In the January 2, 2018 edition, I mentioned that Mary Wilson, current producer of Slate’s The Gist, was a former WNYC staffer. She is not. I regret the error!

The New York Times launches a Facebook group to discuss podcasts (and learn to make better ones)

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 115, published April 11, 2017.

Maximum Funded. Maximum Fun, the L.A.-based podcast company led by radio wunderkind Jesse Thorn, recently concluded the latest edition of its aptly named MaxFunDrive, the yearly membership drive it organizes to refresh and expand its recurring support base. The network is home to a sprawling range of programming — including the well loved My Brother, My Brother and Me, Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert, and Pop Rocket — with distinctly community-oriented vibes, and the company has long used the membership support structure as its primary engine.

The campaign, which officially wrapped at the end of March, was incredibly successful: By the end of its two-week run, the network had gathered 24,181 new and upgrading members, overshadowing its initial goal of 10,000. “We were really nervous,” MaxFun’s Bikram Chatterji told me, with a touch of exhaustion, when we spoke over the phone on the Monday after the drive. Chatterji is the network’s relatively new managing director, barely seven months into the role, and he was telling me about losing for sleep for fear of missing even the initial target.

[Insert Casper mattress joke here, set laptop on fire.]

“It was the highest target we ever set for ourselves,” he said, noting that last year’s goal was a comparatively modest 5,000. (The final haul for last year was somewhere over 9,000.) When this year’s campaign kicked off in mid-March, it surpassed its initial 10,000 target within a week.

It’s a significant achievement, especially when you put that number in context. Maximum Fun has six available recurring support tiers ranging from $5 a month to $200 a month, and Chatterji informed me that the network went into this year’s drive with around 20,000 active supporting members. “So within that 24,181, there was obviously a mix of both new members and longer-term members who upgraded,” he explained. “Both of these cohorts are really important to us.” For a quick comparison, Radiotopia — which uses a similar member support structure, though it only shifted to a recurring support model in 2015 — closed its 2016 drive with over 6,200 new supporters, and it went into that campaign with slightly over 12,500 active recurring donors. (According to my number crunching, anyway. My writeup on that campaign can be found here.)

How all of those new, upgrading, and existing MaxFun members translate into the network’s actual revenue picture depends on how you figure the distribution across its various support tiers, and you’re going to have to guess on that: Understandably, Chatterji declined to share the specific breakdown. But he was kind enough to oblige when I asked about the broader picture, and how the revenue is typically used within the business.

I’m told that membership funds accounted for about 70 percent of the company’s revenue in 2016 — that proportion is expected to hold — with the rest being made up of advertising revenue and money from a distribution deal with NPR that revolves around Bullseye, Thorn’s interview show. “We also do a tiny bit of consulting,” Chatterji added. Almost three-quarters of the money raised from the membership drive goes directly to the shows; when a new membership is confirmed, listeners are asked to name the shows they listen to, and that impacts the proportion of the money that goes to those programs. “Doing that creates a real sense of connection between the shows and the listeners,” Chatterji explains. “It also allows us to offer potential shows a very clear value proposition in working with us.” The rest of the funding gets distributed across administration costs, show development, and general office maintenance.

So that’s the broad shape of Maximum Fun’s business, and one could argue that MaxFun’s achievements with this year’s drive further solidify the value of the membership model for network proprietors that may be anxious over the erraticisms of the advertising business. But it should be noted that MaxFun’s current picture is the product of almost a decade’s worth of work building out a community of fans and getting the company to this point; indeed, this edition of the MaxFunDrive is the latest in a very long line that goes back to 2008. It should also be noted that a membership model is, intuitively speaking, probably better suited for some kinds of shows and listener communities compared to others — which is all to say, MaxFun’s real achievement here is having built out a company on the strength of a model that directly channels the spirit of the enterprise.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Chatterji replied, when I asked if the MaxFun structure is replicable. “I think the evolution of this model is so organic…So much of it from the start has been about Jesse, his vision, his way of doing things, and the community that he’s built around himself.”

Pea-pod. The list of finalists for the 2017 Peabody Awards — which recognize works of broadcasting and the web in service of the public — is out, and the radio/podcast category sports some really interesting entries, including the kids podcast The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel, Marlo Mack’s wonderful How To Be A Girl, APM Reports’ In The Dark, The Heart’s devastating Silent Evidence Series, and interestingly, Homecoming, Gimlet’s experimental fiction project. The full list can be found here, and congrats to all.

Meanwhile, at BuzzFeed. The digital media giant — octopus? — launched a new podcast last week, and it’s a timely one. It’s called Newsfeed with BuzzFeed Ben, an interview show hosted by editor-in-chief Ben Smith that sets its sights on the increasingly perturbing nexus of politics, media, and technology. The inaugural episode features former Obama strategist David Axelrod, and it doubles as the second part of the same conversation that began in last week’s episode of Axelrod’s own interview podcast, The Axe Files, which had featured Smith as the guest. If all these newsy interview podcasts feel like they make up some crowded, conjoined expanded comic book universe, I totally feel you.

And so does Recode’s Peter Kafka, apparently, who wrote up the new BuzzFeed podcast. His piece, by the way, contains a pretty juicy data point for observers: BuzzFeed’s podcasts reportedly generated 9 million downloads in 2016, a good chunk of which was apparently driven by Another Round. For reference, the company had five active podcasts throughout the year, and though I can’t find any good numbers on Another Round’s download performance — aside from a Forbes 40 Under 40 item published in early 2016 honoring cohost Heben Nigatu that places monthly listener numbers at a vague “hundreds of thousands” — the overall number doesn’t strike me as particularly surprising. (Here’s the link to that 40 Under 40 item; beware the usual Forbes ad-avalanche.)

Kafka’s writeup also notes that No One Knows Anything, the company’s politics podcast (which I first wrote about last May), is being rebooted with new talent behind the mic: The show will now be hosted by Kate Nocera, BuzzFeed’s Washington bureau chief, and senior writer Charlie Warzel. No One Knows anything was originally anchored by Evan McMorris-Santoro, who left the company last August to join the Vice News Tonight team.

At the Times, a Podcast Club. Last Wednesday, The New York Times published a fascinating interactive titled “9 Podcast Episodes Worth Discussing,” which served as a tiny door into a much broader enterprise: a digital listening club, one that’s being largely conducted over a moderated Facebook group where new podcast episodes of concern are posted every Monday for members to discuss in long, threaded comments sections. It’s open to the public, and at this writing, the group is fast approaching 10,000 members.

Samantha Henig, the Times’ editorial director for audio, tells me that the club isn’t part of any broader New York Times Facebook group strategy; rather, it’s an extension of something that had organically formed within the organization. “When we first announced that we were starting an audio team at The New York Times” — that was last March, by the way — “pretty much everyone I ran into at work started gushing to me about how excited they were and how much they love podcasts,” Henig told me. Some, she said, had even been running their own personal podcast clubs, and so she figured, what if they made a company-wide version of that?

“My main goal was to harness all that energy and enthusiasm in the building around podcasts, and get a bunch of smart and engaged people in a room together,” she said. “And, selfishly, I thought it would help me and our growing audio team be smarter about our own programming if we’re in regular discussion about what’s working best or falling flat in other shows.”

And so they did. The club eventually drew a varied mix of attendees from throughout the organization, from reporters to developers to data analysts to whatever you call those people working in business development, and Henig describes a wide age range — she notes a higher representation of young folks than what one might usually expect from the Times, while also singling out Ben Weiser, “a Metro reporter who has been one of the most loyal and enthusiastic members but is very much not a millennial” — as well as a variety in taste.

When I asked about the decision to bring the club out into the wild, Henig said: “The Podcast Club has always felt like a very special thing, in part because it scratches an itch that no doubt exists beyond the office. There are lots of people listening to podcasts and eager to discuss what they’re in the middle of or to hear recommendations for what to try next. So [executive producer of audio] Lisa Tobin and I have been thinking for a while about how to go bigger with it.”

Here’s the Facebook Group, and the supporting RadioPublic playlist.

Weekend at Bernie’s. You might have heard over the weekend that Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, rival to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic candidacy in the 2016 presidential campaign, and Larry David muse, now has a podcast.

Sort of.

At the moment, the Bernie Sanders Show’s podcast feed appears to be nothing more than an additional distribution point for the interviews that the senator originally recorded as Facebook Live videos — and that shows in the sound quality, as the available episodes are pretty rough listens. (Though, aside from the near inaudible first episode with Rev. William Barber, it’s not all that different from the quality you’d find off the podcast feeds repackaging cable news broadcasts.) All of that sound quality stuff doesn’t seem to have affected listeners and Sanders supporters one bit, though: The podcast zipped up the iTunes charts, riding the algorithm that largely privileges novel interaction, where it peaked at the No. 2 spot over the weekend, just under S-Town.

There are a myriad of potential threads baked into this. With the podcast’s high chart performance, this might well be a story that reflects on the ideological spread of podcasts as a digital medium and how it can be interpreted as tending to lean somewhat liberal. I’ve written a little bit about this in the past, mostly from the publisher’s side, but the performance of the Bernie feed seems to tell us something about the demand side — or, perhaps more likely, something about the digital savviness of Sanders supporters. In any case, this narrative thread also gestures toward a potential story about the theoretical opportunity podcasts provide political communication: This is a thread whose current history is marked by Hillary Clinton’s Pineapple Street–produced campaign podcast With Her, whose prehistory can be traced back to Senator John Edwards setting up his own podcast in 2005 (with assistance from LibSyn evangelist Rob Walch, no less), and whose various related development includes deputy DNC chairman Keith Ellison’s revival of his own issues podcast and a couple of Democratic legislators in Missouri trying to push a progressive agenda in a red state. Indeed, there are enough nuggets here to suggest the makings of a possible trend or operational opportunity — but then again, it’s just as likely that all of this simply makes for a protracted digital curiosity. We shall see what the future brings to this.

A quick note on live podcasts. Bloomberg published a piece last Friday on the live podcast events business. The article contains some interesting nuggets — Slate’s Steve Lickteig tells the reporters that the company’s live podcast shows “make money” — but it frames the phenomenon as something in its early, budding, perhaps yet-to-be-proven phase. Notably, the article glosses over Welcome to Night Vale’s machinations in this arena, which is unfortunate. As Night Vale co-creator Joseph Fink told me a few weeks ago, live shows have long driven a good deal of the team’s business; the shows sell 50,000 to 60,000 tickets a year.

The Night Vale team is currently in its fourth year of touring globally, and its latest production, All Hail, will be hitting cities across North America this spring.

Public Radio updates. A couple stories here:

  • Looks like the fight for West Virginia Public Broadcasting isn’t over yet: shortly after state governor Jim Justice restored WVPB funding in his budget proposal, the state’s senate finance committee passed a budget bill last Monday zeroing that very funding out. WVBP’s website has more on the story.
  • Big Bird brass: Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal penned a New York Times op-ed arguing in defense of public broadcasting.
  • I didn’t cover this when it originally took place, but: In February, a legal scuffle broke out between New Hampshire Public Radio and Outside Magazine when the latter’s owner, Mariah Media Network, sent a cease-and-desist letter over the station’s use of the word “Outside” on one of its podcasts, “Outside/In.” The dispute has now been resolved with a negotiated trademark coexistence agreement, according to Current. If all that sounds ridiculous to you, well…you’re totally right. It’s bananas, b-a-n-a-n-a-s.

Back, but bigger. First Day Back started out as a quiet, introspective podcast by Tally Abecassis, a Canadian documentarian who moved to craft a small, indie project about her personal experience coming back to work after a lengthy maternity leave. The show, which at the time was associated with the podcast collective The Heard, published sporadically throughout 2015 and into mid-2016, and it eventually got the attention of Scripps, the parent company of Midroll. The company reached out to Abecassis in late 2015, and the show was officially picked up last summer.

The podcast’s second season debuts today, and it features several significant changes. To begin with, the scope is now expanded from the personal to focus on other people’s stories, this time focusing on the tale of a woman as she returns home from prison after years of incarceration for accidentally killing her husband. This type of scope-shifting isn’t entirely unprecedented among podcasts; it echoes the trajectory of Millennial, which pointedly widened its viewpoint after being picked up by Radiotopia, and perhaps more directly, of Gimlet’s StartUp, which broke from its original season’s personal narrative to build future seasons around other companies. First Day Back’s sophomore effort also sports the trappings of support from a much larger company: Abecassis is no longer producing the story by herself, but collaborating with Marc Georges, a Scripps producer, and Dave Shaw, an executive producer at the company. There are now launch sponsors too: Audible and ZipRecruiter.

With corporate trappings, though, come some corporate interests. It’s worth noting that the show is now being positioned as a Stitcher production as opposed to a Scripps production, which was how it was framed to me when I initially wrote about the pickup. Between this and Missing Richard Simmons, which listed Stitcher as a co-producer, it would seem that Midroll is steadily working to fashion Stitcher out as its own editorial brand. This might raise some eyebrows given that Stitcher, which was acquired by Scripps and rolled into the Midroll brand early last summer, is primarily known in the marketplace as a podcast listening app, and Midroll has been looking to build a premium subscription business off the platform. Something’s going on here, and it’s worth keeping an eye on Stitcher.

Anyway, for now, we’re talking about Abecassis’ experience shifting gears. So I sent her a couple of questions:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Why did you decide to partner up with a bigger organization?[/conl]

[conr]Abecassis: Well, making good radio or good films requires resources, and there is only so much I can do alone. I think there is a myth that podcasts are easy or inexpensive to make. The kind of work I like doing involves spending a lot of time with a subject, interviewing, investing in the story. Working with a bigger organization means support in doing that — I now have producers and resources that I didn’t have before. It allowed me to tackle a much more ambitious story for S2.

I had never intended to keep telling my own story and it had a natural “end point” — it didn’t make sense to stretch it beyond that. And the whole point of the first season was about getting back to film and TV! But when the series connected with people, I started thinking about doing more podcasting. And deciding to use the idea of a first day back as a framework to tell other stories got me super excited. I made a list of possible ideas — first day back from the army, from a sports injury, from gender reassignment surgery…All I knew what that I wanted the first one I did to be completely different from Season 1.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your approach to the second season.[/conl]

[conr]Abecassis: The starting point was finding someone who was having a “first day back” from prison, and I really wanted to tell a woman’s story. The woman I found had just come out of prison for accidentally killing her husband and her story was so much more complex and layered than I could have anticipated. The whole thing was tailor-made for radio because the woman agreed to being recorded, but did not want her image used. (A TV producer I work with actually asked me if we could do a TV version and the woman would never agree to that.)

Structuring a six-part serialized story is a beast. (I bow down to the S-Town producers; I don’t even know how they did what they did.) When we started working on this story, we were really taken with this big WTF moment, that our main character did this horrible thing and she claimed to have no memory of having done it. We also wanted to be honest with our listeners that this isn’t your typical whodunnit crime story. She did it. There’s no question about that. What makes it a First Day Back story is what her life is like after and how she tries to come back from it. But there are a lot of challenges: the story still has to build, the sequence of events has to have a context, the themes have to weave in and out, and listeners need to feel invested in this woman’s story knowing she did something terrible…Marc and I have worked and reworked the whole thing so many different ways. We followed her for over a year, so as you can imagine, there were twists and turns through the course of documenting her story.[/conr]

[storybreak]

First Day Back, despite its Stitcher branding, is available on all platforms.

Bites:

  • Heads up: Edison Research will be presenting its podcast-specific audience report in a 30-minute webinar on April 18. Registration to view is free, and open. (Edison Research)
  • WNYC launched its latest podcast, Nancy, this week. (iTunes)
  • Jian Ghomeshi, the disgraced former host of CBC’s Q who was embroiled in a long sexual assault scandal, has apparently resurfaced with a new project. (CBC)
  • The Hollywood Reporter covered the latest DGital Media project, a podcast by author James Andrew Miller. I’ll be keeping an eye out for this because I loved the dude’s book on the CAA, but man, this is an…interesting writeup. Anyway, the show, Origins, which will “explore how a single thing — a TV show, album, company or event — came to be,” comes out this summer. (THR)
  • Twenty Thousand Hertz, one of those podcasts that tells stories about sounds, has a writeup by Entrepreneur editor-in-chief Jason Feifer that sheds some light on its rough costs: creator Dallas Taylor spent about $50,000 on producing the show last year, and expects spend $100,000. (Entrepreneur)
  • S-Town’s Brian Reed was on the most recent episode of the Longform podcast, and talked at length about process. The interview is fabulous, and Mystery Show fans will appreciate the detail on Starlee Kine’s involvement in the story editing phase. (Longform)

[photocredit]Illustration for The New York Times Podcast Club by Laurent Cilluffo.[/photocredit]

Hot Pod: What does an audio producer actually do, anyway?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 104, published January 24, 2017.

Panoply signs two more partners for its Megaphone platform: WBUR and BuzzFeed Audio. The company also announced a platform feature called Megalink, which purports to “simplify the podcast subscription process.” The feature doesn’t seem to be anything particularly fancy; from the looks of it, a “Megalink” is a fancy link that simply routes the user to the primary podcast app on that device (that is, the Podcasts app for iPhones, Google Play Music for Android). This isn’t to downplay its potential usefulness, of course — anything that streamlines the flow from discovery to actual listening is a plus.

Panoply gave the story to RAIN News, so you can read more details there, but here are three things I’m thinking about:

1. That Panoply locked down WBUR as a partner is a pretty big deal. The Boston public radio station is one of the stronger publishers in the podcasting space — in December, the station enjoyed 1.2 million monthly listeners across 13 shows, according to Podtrac — and it’s also a fairly dynamic operation that’s prone to cultivating smart partnerships (see: Modern Love, which it produces with The New York Times) and interesting experiments. The partnership isn’t exactly a surprise, however, as the two organizations have some history. WBUR once partnered with Slate, Panoply’s sister company, on a personal health podcast called The Checkup, and interestingly enough, Panoply chief content officer Andy Bowers started out his radio career as a reporter for the station. (Radioland — it’s a small world.)

2. BuzzFeed Audio moving its podcasts to Megaphone should be quite a blow for Acast. The Swedish company had been hosting BuzzFeed’s podcasts since late 2015, and the partnership was widely utilized by the company as a hook for its brand development. (A buzzy partner on a slide deck goes a long way when you’re targeting bigger media organizations, after all.) This news comes shortly after the company’s former chief revenue officer, Sarah van Mosel, announced her departure to advertising sales firm Market Enginuity after only a year at the job. It also comes after what appears to be a steady trickle of notable podcasts moving away from Acast’s platform to competitors, including Call Your Girlfriend (now repped by Midroll and hosted on Art19), Switched On Pop (now with Panoply), and Who? Weekly (now with Headgum, also hosted on Spreaker). Acast’s future, and whether it will stick to its strategy of targeting big-name partners, remains to be seen. In any case, the company seems to be doubling down on the U.S. despite its losses, recently opening an office in Los Angeles. When contacted, a spokesperson simply noted that the company wishes BuzzFeed the best of luck, and that updates on its 2017 strategy are forthcoming. We’ll see how it goes.

3. Regardless of what happens with Acast, it seems like the competition between Panoply’s Megaphone and Art19 is the primary land-grab to watch, with both platforms racking up strong client lists thus far. Megaphone still sports Gimlet as a hosting client, and Panoply has largely followed through on its focus to sign, collaborate with, and represent audio programming produced by media companies (like Vox, Politico, and The Wall Street Journal) and authors (like Malcolm Gladwell and Gretchen Rubin). Art19, on the other hand, seems to have built a client list based on a strong coalition of podcast companies — including Midroll Media, Feral Audio, DGital Media, and Wondery — along with big, individual publishers like The New York Times. Which makes sense; podcast networks would likely be wary of establishing a hosting partnership with Panoply, which theoretically competes with them in the advertising marketplace. How Panoply negotiates that awkwardness, and how Art19 capitalizes on it, will be the narrative to watch over time.

The Trump administration is considering privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), according to a report in The Hill. The writeup also notes plans to eliminate other federal sources of support for the broader public media ecosystem. Really can’t say I’m surprised to hear about this — indeed, in the very first Hot Pod published after November’s elections, I felt it necessary to state that all eyes should be on the CPB, the vessel of federal funding whose operations are essential to the health of the public media system.

There’s already a string of solid writeups that dig into the matter — in particular, check out Current, The Huffington Post, and Media Matters. I highly recommend reading all three pieces in full, especially Media Matters’, which contains CPB’s full statement on the matter. Two things, though:

1. All three writeups make reference to the historical on-again, off-again tensions between Republican administrations and the public media system’s perceived relationship with liberal ideological bias. Which is useful context, but it also evokes some optimistic suggestion that, despite these conflicts, the public media system has survived to this day, in effect drawing upon the past to inform what might happen in the future. I hold no such optimism. If this election has illustrated anything, it’s that we’re dealing with a dramatically anomalous state of affairs cultivated by an administration that’s unprecedented on numerous levels. It’s also an administration that deeply centralizes the media as a tool of power.

2. It goes without saying that the stakes for public media are incredibly high. A 2012 report commissioned by the CPB from consulting firm Booz & Company — cited by both Current and Media Matters — is pretty straightforward about the consequences: “This report concludes that there is no substitute for federal support of public broadcasting, and that the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting.” Unsurprisingly, smaller stations and stations located in more rural areas will be the hardest hit. As the CPB notes in its statement:

The federal investment in public media is vital seed money — especially for stations located in rural America, and those serving underserved populations where the appropriation counts for 40-50% of their budget. The loss of this seed money would have a devastating effect. These stations would have to raise approximately 200 percent more in private donations to replace the federal investment.

Which is to say, while bigger stations like WNYC and WBUR might well be able to make up the gap and survive, a good swath of the smaller stations across the country — whose well-being have long been under assault between the economic conditions of their respective locations and some amount of digital disruption — will likely be blown out. The consequence of that would the further debilitation of local, civically-minded news and information infrastructures in places that really need them. Much has already been written about the decline of local newspapers, and one can only imagine that this development, with its focus on the broadcast radio end of the local media spectrum that had been relatively insulated, will further accelerate that decline — and deal yet another harsh blow to the health of civic society.

Hearken-powered local podcasts. However the problems of local media will be dealt with at a system-wide level, I nonetheless strongly suspect that the building of tools that encourage a strong sense of community will be a big part of the solution.

That’s why I pay close attention to Hearken, the audience engagement platform that works with newsrooms to develop stronger feedback loops with their readers and listeners, which has been responsible for a growing species of really interesting locally-focused podcasts. The company currently collaborates with over 50 public media newsrooms, and a good portion of those collaborations have resulted in various localizations of WBEZ’s Curious City podcast, which are shows designed to answer questions from listeners about the place or community that they live in. Curious City was originally developed by Hearken CEO Jennifer Brandel during her time as a contract worker at the station, and the growing list of Hearken-powered adaptations now include, among others: FDD’s Curious Carolina, WPLN’s Curious Nashville, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Curious Canberra, and KQED’s Bay Curious — which, by the way, recently bought ads in the city’s metro system to advertise the podcast. (Here’s the full list of “Hearken-powered podcasts.”)

“We do have some public media partners who just release their broadcast episodes as a ‘podcast,'” Brandel tells me. “But we’ve seen more and more are thinking podcast-first for the audio content, or at least making their podcasts different (and I’d say better) from what they broadcast (the clock is a cruel turkey).”

Some of Hearken’s partners are beginning to see encouraging returns. Brandel tells me that a few partners have told them how Hearken-powered stories are already being cited during membership drives as why people give for the first time, or why they increased their donation level. KQED reports that Bay Curious is seeing listenership grow every week, along with a healthy stream of positive feedback.

“People are hungry for a sense of place,” Brandel notes. “The Chipotlization of every town in America (globally?) makes the local, idiosyncratic amazing wonders of every town and city more and more endangered (or at least way less obvious), and answering questions that unearth the fascinating context for how a place came to be, how it changed, and is changing is a great way to get people feeling more local pride, engagement, and will hopefully lead them to action (whether that’s donating to their member station or getting involved civically).”

She adds: “One of the most exciting parts of our model is when the public gets to accompany reporters on the reporting. That shit is hard to do nationally. Locally, it works wonderfully. The public loves getting to meet and have an adventure with their pub media heartthrob. Hello lifelong loyalty.”

Lifelong loyalty, indeed. You can learn more about Hearken on their website.

Relevant: Melody Joy Kramer’s latest — “What does a news organization optimized for trust look like?

Jezebel now has a podcast, the delightfully named Big Time Dicks, which spins out from the site’s Big Time Small-Time Dicks column that keeps a critical eye on politics and policy at the local and federal level. What’s interesting: note the mention of the “Fusion Audio Network” in the iTunes listing — recall that the Gizmodo Media Group is now part of Fusion in its post-Gawker existence — as well as the namedrop of Mandana Mofidi in the announcement post, who serves as the executive producer of audio for the operation.

Designing positions for audio producers (for first-timers and instigators). One of the biggest things that animates my optimism in the podcast industry is its potential to open up more substantial work opportunities for audio producers, particularly as more existing media companies and entrepreneurial types get drawn into building whole new ventures and teams around audio programming. That’s the supposed beauty of the Internet’s democratizing force: Where audio programming was previously monopolized by a few who have power over the limited means of distribution — in audio’s case, radio companies and finite broadcast airwaves — greater numbers of new businesses can now be built on top of the infinite horizon of the Internet. And the more businesses that are built, the more producers can get employed. Seems pretty straightforward.

Of course, things are never that simple. The quality of the new jobs being created is always a question, and a big part of that has to do with how these new ventures — some of which will come with significant background in radio, some of which come in fresh — understand the role of audio producers and, perhaps more importantly, the work that goes into creating valuable audio products. A breakdown in this key juncture has the potential to trigger a downward spiral; a misunderstanding of a role leads to misunderstood hires leads to poor products leads to failed efforts leads to an entrenched misunderstanding of the original opportunity, after which everybody leaves the arrangement unhappy.

All of that was in the back of my mind when I spotted veteran audio editor Julia Barton’s reaction to a recent Washington Post job posting for an audio producer a few weeks ago. “Biting my tongue,” she wrote on Facebook, in response to the job description. Barton has been quite vocal in the past about how the work of audio producers are often underestimated. Most recently, she wrote an article for Current where she argued that the widespread use of generic stock mic photos in writeups about audio work reflects and abets a harmful oversimplification of the job. The premise of Barton’s argument might be somewhat mischievous, but the underlying impulse that energizes the piece — that cultural representation has material consequences — is nonetheless important.

Curious, I reached out to Barton to talk more about the thinking behind her reaction.

[storybreak]

[conl]Quah: What, exactly, was it about the job posting that you were responding to?[/conl]

[conr]Barton: This is not to drag The Washington Post — I’m thrilled that they’re looking to hire so much talent and expand. I came across this particular audio-producer listing because a WP staffer posted on Twitter about video hiring, and I was curious if they were hiring in audio as well.

I haven’t talked with the Post, and I’d urge you to do that because I’m probably overreacting. But if I were a potential candidate, someone with the “experience crafting rich audio storytelling and great interviews” that they want, I would be wary of some red flags. A big one is in the first line of the job description: “Work with hosts and reporters to script, record and edit a variety of Washington Post podcasts.”

That tells me (again, I hope I’m wrong!) this is a shop that views podcast production as a one-man-band effort. It carries the assumption that podcasts are easily knocked off, one after another, with a little prep, a recording session, and a couple of hours in front of an audio-editing suite. And that’s just not how it works if your goal is “rich audio storytelling.” People seem to get that it takes a village to run a newsroom or to make a broadcast or produce a studio album, but the fantasy persists that audio storytelling is simple and cheap. That’s just not true.[/conr]

[conl]Nicholas Quah: Could you broadly walk me through the job of the producer?[/conl]

[conr]Julia Barton: It really depends on the project. If you’re a daily broadcast newsmagazine like All Things Considered or PRI’s The World, and you have to fill a fixed clock? Then you need dozens of people: reporters, planning editors, story editors, show directors, engineers, and segment producers, in addition to the managers and digital teams.

Unfortunately, public radio developed its own nomenclature, one that’s different from film or TV or even European radio terms. In the world I come from, a producer is someone who works with tape, whether recorded in the studio or in the field. They “edit” tape, but they are not editors (I’ll get to that in a minute). They may run recording sessions, but they are not engineers or technical directors. They don’t assign stories or work with freelancers. But in podcasting, especially among folks without a radio background, the term “producer” has inflated to cover all those roles in some shops.

Here’s the essential problem, though: Audio production is very time-consuming. I don’t mean because we are divas at a makeup table — I mean it literally consumes time. When you have a chunk of raw tape from the field, you really should listen to it all or you’ll miss some half-second of magic. When you edit down a section of an interview, you have to listen to that section to hear if it works. When you edit out a breath, you have to listen to make sure that person doesn’t sound like they’re trapped in an airless vacuum. When you add musical scoring, you have to listen to how that affects a section, and then keep adjusting. When you finish an episode, you have to listen to the whole thing for errors, and before you know it, you’ve started tearing it all up again. And to make matters worse, this level of over-exposure means your brain can’t hear the actual content in a fresh way. You have no idea if it even makes sense after a while because you are so busy moving Lego-chunks of audio around. Afterward you are dead, and you’re not really up for planning the next episode.

That’s why it’s really important that audio producers have someone outside of this vortex to help them plan, to strategize and talk about the story so they don’t go down wrong paths that waste so much time. This is the story editor, and this cannot be the same person as the producer for the reasons I just explained above. The editor is a bridge between the producer and the listener, and the overall editorial goals of a show, production house, or newsroom. This is someone who can hear problems and give precise, actionable feedback that saves time (and lives, I like to think).

Finally, when you get to issues of audio quality, levels, gear, studio management, and sound design, you need a dedicated engineer. All these people make so much difference for producer sanity and the listener’s experience, but we almost never hear their voices.[/conr]

[conl]Quah: Any final notes for media organizations building out audio teams for the first time?[/conl]

[conr]Barton: That audio production is complicated and time-consuming, but you will be rewarded by listeners for giving it the resources it needs. Anyone building a new team needs to sit in on the weekly production cycle of a show they admire. Every person involved in that production is there for an important reason. They’re actually the reason you love that show, so figure out what they do and how you can get people like them. By the way, they don’t all have to work in the same room. Some of the best productions teams I’ve been on have been scattered around the country or world.[/conr]

[storybreak]

I reached out to the Post in a bid to discuss the position, and perhaps to understand the team that they are planning to build. I wasn’t given a response on the record.

Anyway, I’d like to emphasize, at this point, that this story is purely about on Barton’s thinking and the larger issue of effectively translating the complexity of these jobs. This isn’t — and shouldn’t be — a story about The Washington Post’s audio team or the appropriateness of how they’re hiring for the position, as all of that very much remains to be seen. That said, it’s worth contextualizing Barton’s arguments and the Post’s situation within a dynamic that we’ve seen in other parts of the media industry — namely, that there will always exist a fine line between working to create new workflows within constraints and appropriate work-to-compensation ratios, and within this, there will always be a tension between efforts to create new pathways from the bottom up and negotiating the sanctity of traditional workflows.

In related news, the Post just released its latest podcast: the Trump-focused Can He Do That?

Bites:

  • 60dB is now available as a skill for the Amazon Echo. Expect more audio programming companies to follow suit, because talking refrigerators. (Company Blog)
  • This morning, DGital Media announced yet another partner: The Players’ Tribune, which is that media platform for professional athletes.
  • American Public Media has hired Nathan Tobey as its new director of on-demand and national cultural programming. Tobey most previously worked on podcast projects for WGBH, and was a co-creator of Strangler, which was a collaboration between Midroll Media and Northern Light Productions.
  • You might have heard that Pod Save America, Crooked Media’s first podcast offering, scored President Obama’s last interview in office. But here’s an interesting tidbit about the venture started by the former Obama staffers: Pod Save America hit over a million listens in its first week-plus of operation, before the Obama interview went live. (Twitter)
  • On a related note, I wrote about the future of political podcasts in the Trump era and how the genre might be ripe for activism. (Vulture)
  • For what it’s worth, I listened to WNYC, MPR News, and The Economist’s Indivisible last night off Facebook. Gotta say: The experience wasn’t bad. (Twitter)
  • Audible’s collaboration with TED, “Sincerely, X,” will come out on February 1. I wrote about the project back in September. As always, you can check out a running list of upcoming releases on this page.

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.

Hot Pod: Will 60dB’s algorithms and user experience give it a lead over other audio platforms?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-four, published November 1, 2016.

Tiny Garage Labs pushed its short-form audio platform 60dB out into the public last week and bagged itself a bit of press, with writeups from Fast Company, Lifehacker, TechCrunch, and Nieman Lab. A few weeks ago, I briefly wrote about 60dB and the Silicon Valley-based team, which is made up of Netflix veterans John Ciancutti and Steve McLendon together with NPR alum Steve Henn. Back then, it was still in beta, and I made a point to draw attention to its focus on individual segments as the atomic unit of content.

Now that 60dB is out in the wild, I’m still not particularly sure what to make of it. But here are two things I’m thinking about:

1. It would be imprecise to view 60dB, as Fast Company’s headline suggests, as intending to solve the structural problems of podcasts. (Though, from the looks of the app’s current content offerings, it does not mind getting involved with them for now.) Rather, the app is best interpreted as attending to the larger listener experience problems associated with broadcast radio, whose distribution structure is deeply inefficient.

Ciancutti explained the problem when we spoke last week: As a radio listener, you essentially have two options when you encounter something you don’t want — you can either change the station or wait for time to pass within the confines of a specific station. (On the supply side, the problem can be viewed this way: At any given point of time, a station only has one interface point with which to work on its relationship with a listener.) 60dB’s gambit, as a platform, is to solve the efficiencies on both the listener and publisher side: Listeners are freed from the slog of unwanted experiences and having to make the bulk of choices, through a largely automated consumptive experience driven by shorter content chunks strung together by “algorithmic personalization.” And publishers will enjoy larger volumes of listeners efficiently sorted from multiple directions into their show portfolios.

Sound familiar? It’s basically the premise of almost every digital content platform from Facebook to Spotify to, well, Netflix. Which means that the attendant considerations and calculations for publishers should be the same, as they’ve lived through this story multiple times before — and are living through versions of it now.

Considerations like: Who will ultimately own the audience, 60dB or the publisher? Would the benefit of developing for the platform outweigh the potential lack of direct audience ownership in the future? What is the likelihood of a mutually beneficial audience development for both the publisher and the platform? And so on and so on.

Which is not to say that publishers are destined to play out any particular future here, or that there isn’t substantial benefit in collaborating with Tiny Garage Labs at this moment. 60dB stands to build out a new audience development arm for publishers that they are unable to explore for themselves, and publishers stand to provide 60dB with some compelling, structurally optimized content. What I’m merely saying is: At the end of the day, the devil will be in the details of the deal.

“We’re closing deals with specific partners,” Ciancutto told me. “We’re helping partners to tell and make these kinds of audio stories.” When I asked about the monetization end of the deal for publishers, he replied: “It’s stuff we still have to work on and figure out. Right now, we’re working on nailing the experience. Monetization will come next.”

2. There’s also the more fundamental question about whether 60dB’s gambit is a winning one. Two out of the three founders are Netflix veterans, and the team leans on that connection pretty hard. One imagines the shape of its strategy is appropriately Netflix-like. What does that mean? It’s helpful to refer to analyst Ben Thompson’s Stratechery newsletter this week, which spells out that strategy:

Netflix has built leverage and monopsony power over the premium video industry not by controlling distribution, at least not at the beginning, but by delivering a superior customer experience that creates a virtuous cycle: Netflix earns the users, which increases its power over suppliers, which brings in more users, which increases its power even more.

But the success of a strategy lies not just on its shape, but on the strength of its variables as well. And so the relevant question here is: Will 60dB’s interpretation of “superior customer experience” — shorter content units, largely algorithmically driven experiences — pay off?

A potential clue can perhaps be found in examinations of another media platform type whose dynamics function similarly: ad exchanges. In a piece published last week at The New York Review of Books, Slate group chairman Jacob Weisberg made the following observation: “Ad exchanges…have made digital advertising more efficient without necessarily making it more effective in increasing sales.” Which is to say, time will tell whether 60dB’s gambit of equating content efficiency with effective experiences will amount to anything, and I’m very curious to see where this goes.

Gimlet officially announced its fall launch slate this morning, and in doing so, offers a look into what appears to be a new phase for the company. Close observers probably know many of these new shows already — they were unveiled during the Brooklyn Upfronts event over the summer — but this morning’s press release revealed a previously unannounced audio drama project with a high profile cast.

Here’s the lineup:

  • Undone, a show hosted by former Radiolab producer Pat Walters that revisits big events from the past. It’s a familiar premise, one most recently utilized to great effect by Malcolm Gladwell and Panoply with Revisionist History. Launches November 14.
  • Homecoming, an original audio drama project that’ll feature Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, and David Schwimmer on the talent roster. Launches November 16.
  • Crimetown, which will mark Gimlet’s first foray into the ever-dependable true crime genre. The podcast is driven by part of the team behind HBO’s The Jinx — whose bubbling popularity back in early 2015 compelled critical associations with Serial — and it will examine organized crime in Providence, Rhode Island. Launches November 20.

Additionally, the company’s flagship StartUp podcast will kick off its latest full season this Thursday. This fourth season follows Dov Charney, the controversial former American Apparel CEO who was forced out of the fashion giant in 2014 following numerous reports of misconduct — including sexual harassment — as he pursues a new venture. (Frankly, I’m morbidly interested in hearing how the StartUp team handles this. The push from their end would be for reporting, the push from his end is likely image rehabilitation, and how that dynamic plays out will be the thing to watch.)

Two things:

1. The close proximity of all the launches really stands out to me here. We’re talking three launches in seven days, with each project having its own distinct press hook. Clumping is a smart strategy, I think, one that focuses attention is a way that presents Gimlet with a clear run of opportunities to firmly shape its narrative. The staggered launches of the company’s previous shows (Heavyweight in mid-September, Science Vs in late July) led to a pretty diffuse sense of momentum, and when it comes to a hits-based business — which Gimlet most definitely is — launch momentum is a crucial kind of capital.

2. Also interesting: the strategic conservatism in these bets. You can see the math at work in all three projects: the combination of a legacy radio talent with a classic premise (Undone), stacking an experimental deck with Hollywood talent (Homecoming), and tapping into a battle-tested genre that is a staple on the iTunes charts (Crimetown). Not knocking the choices here; given Gimlet’s high-value-per-project business model and a growing need for its next big hit, these are understandable moves.

The company marches into November following a few optically rough weeks between the Mystery Show controversy and the subsequent winding down of Sampler, two developments that were even dissonant within the context of the most recent StartUp mini-season, which kicked off a few hours after the Mystery Show announcement with an anxiety narrative that seemed to further split its private and public narrative. This November launch week presents a much-needed break from the past, and a chance for the company to reset its bearings.

Planet Money’s Neal Carruth is NPR’s new general manager for podcasts, a brand new position. According to the announcement memo, Carruth “will support the teams working on those shows, strengthen connections between our podcast portfolio and the newsroom and member stations, and support innovation and new program development across NPR as a key member of the newly expanded NPR Story Lab.” He will report to Anya Grundmann, VP of programming and audience development.

“I think we could probably have much richer conversations about NPR’s strategy in a few months, but what I can say is this reflects the seriousness of NPR’s commitment to podcasting,” Carruth said, when I asked about his strategy. “A big part of this for me is talent development — leveraging the incredible talent we have in our newsroom and inside the public radio system. I want to make sure NPR is a great place for creative people.”

He added: “And we want to make sure that member stations are part of this too.” (Poynter ran a longer interview with Carruth, if you’re interested.)

The hiring process for the position took place over a five-month period, with the job posted back in June. This news emerges from the shadow of the NPR podcast promotion kerfuffle (which raised questions over the organization’s relationship to podcasts) back in March, the WBAA-This American Life brouhaha (which raised questions over the broader public radio system’s relationship to podcasts and digital audio) back in May, and NPR One managing editor Sara Sarasohn’s departure from the organization in early September. NPR has been driving a positive wave of announcements lately, unveiling its restructured Story Lab initiative and drawing attention to a strong ratings increase (though, as Current’s Adam Ragusea reported, it’s unclear how to read that apart from a tweak in measurement methodology and the bump from a bonkers election year).

Carruth, a 17-year NPR veteran who most recently ran the business desk and oversaw the Planet Money podcast, will start his new role after Thanksgiving. (He’s also a super chill dude.) David Sweeney will temporarily take over the business desk.

Travel Pod. There’s huge overlap between food media and travel media: a trading in the currency of desire, an editorial choice or balance between dispensing information and peddling fantasy, an indexing towards the visual. Also worth noting to the list of shared traits is the tension I wrote about a few weeks ago within food media — between food media and media about food — which applies, I think, just as well to the travel vertical, though I do struggle to think of strong contemporary examples of viscerally driven travel media beyond the heyday of the Travel Channel circa early 2000s. (I had cable once, as a child, and it was beautiful.)

Roads and Kingdoms, a Brooklyn-based digital media concern, is one such example of a media company about travel, in the sense that it plays with the symbols of globetrotting fantasy while running longform magazine-y pieces. (A chilled-out person’s Vice, one would say.) There is much I find fascinating about R+K: its magazine gloss, its malleable niche, its acceptance of investment by media personality Anthony Bourdain. This is the kind of boutiquey media company that counts among its leaders a guy, one Nathan Thornburgh, who says stuff like: “A great listicle about seven cabanas and seven beaches is still going to kill on the Internet and power glossy magazines, but there are lots of people who think about travel as losing yourself in someone else’s life.”

The company, of course, is pursuing a podcast project, which will be called The Trip. Hosted by Thornburgh and executive editor Kara Parks, the show will showcase the kinds of stories that you’d expect from the site — a mix of travelogue, foreign journalism, cultural anthropology, scenes, and places pieces — and will be backed by sound-rich production values. Bourdain will feature in some pieces. I’m curious.

Production is led by Josie Holtzman, a Brooklyn-based producer on NPR Music’s Jazz Night in America. Philadelphia-based Alex Lewis is handling the ad creative, a set of short midroll profiles on chefs working in New York City’s Lower East Side. The first season, which will run for six episodes, is sponsored in full by Tiger Beer, and Panoply will play a supporting role with distribution and promotion, whatever that means. It will tentatively launch in the first week of March 2017.

Governmental advertising on U.K. podcasts? Caroline Crampton, an assistant editor at the left-of-center British publication the New Statesman (which has a healthy podcast roster), writes in to let me know about a string of governmental ad buys that have been taking place on UK podcasts. Over email, she explained:

We’ve had two major government-sponsor campaigns on our shows. The first ran in spring this year, and was about the benefits to UK companies of exporting their goods to other countries (part of this initiative) and the other is from the Department of Work and Pensions and encourages small business owners to sign up for the new government Workplace Pensions Scheme (this one is due to run from 7 November). Both were sponsor reads, rather than externally-recorded ads, so we were sent a brief containing the facts and figures and then our hosts worked with it to create the final audio. Both campaigns appeared on the New Statesman Podcast, which is our biggest show and focuses on UK politics, and were mostly about spreading information — the action listeners was asked to take was just to read a website for more details.

I asked Crampton if she had heard of anything beyond governmental ads. She replied:

We haven’t yet seen any non-government political ads in the UK as far as I’m aware — at the New Statesman we haven’t yet been approached by a candidate or political campaign, and I haven’t heard such an ad anywhere else. My sense is that government media buyers have bigger budgets than everyone else in the political sphere, and are thus able to be a bit more forward-thinking and experimental with how they spend their cash. They seem to be trying out podcasts as a new platform for citizen informational campaigns beyond the more traditional posters and radio/TV spots. I don’t know of any political party or union that is yet choosing to spend money with podcasts as a way of reaching voters or members, although given that the 2015 general election was the first time the UK really saw parties spending big money on targeted social media ads (dominating the so-called “cyber war” is considered to be a big part of why the Conservatives won a surprise victory) I don’t think party political podcast campaigns can be that far off here.

Fascinating. Crampton, by the way, recently launched a new podcast criticism column in the New Statesman, and you should check it out.

Bites:

  • Oh, NPR’s Story Lab Pitch Portal is now live! (NPR)
  • Audible crawls out into the wild west: One of its original shows, Presidents Are People Too, is now available for free in podcatchers everywhere. “It’s been our plan since the beginning to try other platforms as a way to introduce listeners to the great series we have available at Audible,” Audible SVP of original content Eric Nuzum tells me. (iTunes)
  • Stephen Dubner writes in to correct a detail I ran last week: His Midroll show with James Altucher, Question of the Day, is actually not running any more, having wrapped publication in early September. Sorry about that!
  • The Memory Palace’s Nate DiMeo, currently the artist-in-residence at the Met, releases his first few episodes from that stint. (The Memory Palace)
  • BuzzFeed’s latest podcast: See Something Say Something, a show hosted by Ahmed Ali Akbar about being Muslim in America. (iTunes)
  • “How To Cope With 2016: Start An Election-Gambling Podcast.” (FiveThirtyEight)
  • Midroll’s inaugural Now Hear This festival took place over the weekend, and from what I’ve heard from a few attendees, it seemed to have been a successful first run. If you were there, let me know what you think! I’d love to run a reaction roundup.
  • The great Linda Holmes of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour has a fun theory that sorts the different podcast communities according to a Hogwarts-like taxonomy, but her concluding point is cash money: “My point is mostly that when you’re trying to serve podcast audiences OR creators, many in these houses are UTTERLY indifferent to others.” (Twitter)

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.

Hot Pod: Is podcasting about food the new dancing about architecture?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-two, published October 18, 2016.

Gimlet ends Sampler. The company announced the end of its podcast about podcasts at the top of its last episode, which was published late Monday evening. In the preshow note, Gimlet CEO Alex Blumberg explained that the move was to “basically clear the deck” to give room to a new project that will be built around Sampler host Brittany Luse. It is unclear what this new show will be about or when it will be ready for launch, but listeners were told to remain subscribed to the Sampler feed for further information that will be released at a later date.

This move comes about a week and a half after the Mystery Show rumpus, and I suppose it’s also worth noting that the StartUp episode released that week, which focused on Gimlet and its current stresses related to growth, brought up the fact that some of its shows — Sampler included — had essentially plateaued in audience growth. However, one should also keep in mind that podcast consumption tends to slow down during the summertime, and that may well be what we’re seeing. Whether Sampler’s audience numbers directly influenced the decision to end its run or not (I doubt we’ll know for sure), it nonetheless comes at an interesting time between the company’s brush with controversy and the recent NPR pickup of WAMU’s The Big Listen, also a podcast about podcasts, which began publishing its latest season earlier this month.

Luse joined Gimlet in September 2014 largely off the strength of her independently produced podcast For Colored Nerds, which has continued publishing to this day. This is, technically speaking, the first time Gimlet has winded down a show.

Science Friday is launching a new show. The long-running public radio program that serves weekly scoops of delicious science news is birthing a spinoff: Undiscovered, which I’m being told is about the “left turns and lucky breaks that make science really happen.” I’m guessing it’s sort of like How I Built This, but for science! The new show will be hosted by veteran science producers Annie Minoff and Elah Feder, and it’s scheduled to roll out sometime early 2017.

By the way, Science Friday just celebrated its 25th year of operations with a gala at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York this past Saturday. Congrats, folks!

Community-driven discovery. “People get really hyped when they find me,” said Danielle Sykes, the creator of Podcasts in Color, an individually driven digital project that’s working hard to build out an online space for people of color who produce and consume podcasts. I had asked Sykes, who goes by Berry, if she felt like the podcast ecosystem had been adequately accommodating of different voices and communities — that is, for demographics other than “the white guys with mics” stereotype the space has become saddled with.

“There’s room for improvement,” she said, by way of explaining why people get excited when encountering Podcasts in Color. “But I believe it’s coming.”

And it may well come from efforts like hers. Berry’s work with Podcasts in Color is remarkable for a number of reasons — its push to diversify podcasting’s identity, its intent to push more podcasts made by people of color into the mainstream, its scrappiness. But her most interesting contribution, I think, is how she’s laying down a framework for a community-driven approach to podcast discovery, which has almost universally been described as broken and whose articulated solutions tend to revolve around technological approaches: a better platform, a better app, a better curation system built on top of existing distributors, and so on. (Another approach that has popped up in recent weeks: greater critical embrace, as embodied by the Third Coast Festival’s recent call for inclusion among fall arts previews.)

Podcasts in Color functions on two mechanics. First, Berry cultivates and maintains an active community of interested participants over a collection of social media accounts, though the bulk of the interactions appear on Twitter, where she makes rigorous use of hashtags (like #PodIn and #PodsInColor) under the nom de plume Mystery Berry. Over Twitter, Berry maintains a near-continuous stream of engaged and enthusiastic interactions, pulling people into public conversation and constantly surfacing new shows and episodes. While the effect can sometimes be overwhelming, it’s nonetheless effective: I have personally found more than a few shows off Berry’s conversational blast radius that I’ve come to appreciate, and it always strikes me how I probably wouldn’t have been able to learn about those shows anywhere else.

The second mechanic lies in an attempt to document the universe of podcasts created by people of color, which Berry does by maintaining a directory of such shows that lives on the Podcasts in Color website. She tells me that new submissions to the directory are added daily, and the product is a comprehensive, if somewhat unwieldy, database whose existence should strip away the logic from arguments asserting that it’s hard to find podcasters of color.

“I’m trying to create the podcast world that I see in my head,” Berry told me, adding that her general distance from the coasts — she lives in Denver, where she works part-time at a travel company — informs her work. “I see everything from a ‘middle America’ perspective, so I love to think of ways someone living in Denver could connect and find podcasts easily.”

Podcasts in Color remains relatively small in reach. By Berry’s count, Podcasts in Color currently reaches over 4,500 followers across its social media accounts, and the directory sports only about a thousand visitors a week. But while its numbers may be fledgling, Berry’s work is rising to meet a need that continues to persist in the space. And besides, speaking as a person who started a newsletter out of nothing, everybody starts out small.

Find the Podcasts in Color community on Twitter, and the directory on its website.

This American Life’s new tool. This American Life publicly rolled out its new audio clipping and sharing tool, called Shortcut, last week. Nieman Lab has a great writeup of the tool discussing its origins at last September’s This American Life audio hackathon (which I covered at the time) and contextualizing it within the broader spectrum of similar audio sharing efforts like WNYC’s Audiograms initiative and the Clammr app.

It’s worth noting that Shortcut will be open-sourced; the team plans to release the code soon. Stephanie Foo, Shortcut’s project lead (and This American Life staff producer) told me that she encourages people to use the tool in a variety of ways. “I like to see this idea be taken and shared,” she said. Foo added that she invites companies like Apple and Stitcher — distribution platforms that generate tons of valuable user behavior data — to take notice and consider ways to facilitate sharing experiences for listeners.

She also mentioned that her team is looking create a “database of interest” of people and team who want to start using the tool on their own. “We want to see how much effort we need to put into hand-holding,” she said. Such teams should send a note to web@thislife.org.

Whetting appetites through your earballs. “I think food podcasts in general have a ton of room for growth,” said Dan Pashman, who hosts WNYC Studio’s The Sporkful, when we traded emails recently.

I had written to ask a few questions about his show and, more generally, about the scope of opportunities for food podcasts. Pashman pointed out that millennials (née snake people) spend over $90 billion per year on food, using that number to illustrate the scale of potential interest among the prime podcast-consuming demographic. That kinda makes sense, though I figure that number is probably always meant to be big given the fact that we all kind of have to eat to live (unless you’re one of those Soylent people). But I suppose the very existence of those varied approaches and subsequent rebuttals to the subject further underscores Pashman’s point about food being such vibrant point of concern, interest, and thought in human life.

“As a general matter, I’d say food media roughly breaks down into three categories: tips/hacks/recipes, news/journalism, and storytelling,” Pashman said. “I think the second and third categories are as well suited to audio as any other medium, perhaps better suited. As for the first category, there are some food podcasts that do tips and recipes very well, but I do wonder how that content will fare long term. People seem to want their cooking tips in shorter formats each year…Listening to a podcast isn’t the most efficient way to learn how to sear a steak or eat durian.”

And it would seem that all three categories are more or less well served by the crop of food podcasts currently on the market, from The Sporkful and APM’s The Splendid Table to Gastropod and Food52’s Burnt Toast to Gravy and all those lovely works by the Kitchen Sisters. (Let’s not even talk about the subgenre of food podcasts that specifically focuses on drink. That’s a doozy.)

But I’ve always had a sense that there is a fundamental difference between “food media” and media about food, which sport very different kinds of market opportunities. Almost all food podcasts, I think, cleanly fall within that second bucket, leaning deep into narrative-first designs that don’t really draw all much from the viscerality that the idea and experience of food often promote. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve generally viewed “food media” to be the kind driven by that viscerality; I think about the gauzy closeups in cooking shows, the gorgeous glossy photos in print magazines, and all of those other borderline pornographic editorial units that tap into that lizard-brain feeling of want — which I think is somewhat structurally in opposition to what we traditionally think about when we think about storytelling narrative, and as a function of that is a genre that tends to favor visual approaches. The platonic ideal for this media species is probably something like BuzzFeed’s Tasty social food video empire circa summer 2016, and I guess I’m having a hard time finding audio projects that attempts to execute purely on those mechanics. To some extent, I wonder if that’s even possible — but if it is, and if there emerge strong attempts to capitalize on those same mechanics, I do believe there’s a really interesting business in here somewhere, or at least a technique that can greatly increase the hook of existing food podcasts.

“I do think you can tap into that want without visuals,” Pashman said, when I spiralled off on this ramble. “In some ways, perhaps, it’s even more visceral because as people listen, they picture their own personal platonic ideal of a food.”

Hmm.

Tangentially relevant but interesting nonetheless: Found out that the Food Network hauled in $891.6 million in revenues last year, though a 2014 Quartz article observed the channel’s programming trend to have shifted its focus away from food and more towards competitions.

A series on food and race. Pashman, by the way, is currently publishing a Sporkful special series on race and food called Who Is This Restaurant For? “The basic premise is that every time you walk into a restaurant, you’re bombarded with signals that tell you what kind of place it is and whether it’s for you,” Pashman explained. “We’re hoping that by exploring these signals from the perspective of both restaurateurs and customers, we can reveal something about the judgments we all make, our perceptions of race and culture, and how the world looks to different people.”

This miniseries marks Pashman’s second project in the past year that examines the intersection of food and race, following his set of reports called Other People’s Food that originally came out back in March. (It was republished earlier this month as a lead up to the new series. Which is an interesting marketing initiative, if you ask me.)

I asked Pashman, who is white, about his growing focus on this topic. “If you’re living in America right now, how can you not be interested in exploring questions of race, culture, and identity?” he replied. “I was optimistic that food could offer an entry point, some kind of common experience where a meaningful conversation could begin.”

I’m told WNYC Studios doesn’t share audience numbers (a shame!), but Pashman says the series has gotten a “huge response.”

“In a certain way, podcasts are to public radio as public radio was to commercial radio,” said Studio 360’s Kurt Andersen on a recent episode of Recode Media, sketching out the parallel between public radio’s oppositional nature to its incumbents back in its day and podcasting’s own stylistic rubbing up against public radio today. “It’s all part of the great circle of life,” he trailed off.

Check out the superfun interview — this specific section begins at the 27:30 mark.

Bites:

  • Zach Brand, NPR’s VP of digital media and services, is moving to The Guardian, where he replaces Aron Pilhofer as chief digital officer. (The Guardian)
  • I’m not personally clear about the cultural significance of the Webby Awards, but it’s taking entries for podcasts and digital audio, so do keep tabs on that if it’s interesting to ya. (The Webby Awards)
  • Acast announced last week that it is granting its clients access to music library Epidemic Sound and the Hindenburg Journalist Pro editing software. It’s probably a move to sweeten the deal for podcast publishers and producers considering the Swedish podcast company as a potential ad sales provider, though those perks do feel like add-ons as opposed to core demands. (RAIN News)
  • Missed this last week, but really worth your attention: BackStory with the American History Guys, a popular Charlottesville-based radio show, is restructuring to become digital-first. As part of this shift, it will no longer offer an hour-long version for broadcast starting February 3, 2017, opting for primary distribution through a weekly podcast publishing format. The show had previously found distribution over 173 stations across 31 states and Washington, D.C., according to their website. Check out the Current writeup for more details.
  • Podcast upstart Paragon Collective dropped a trailer for its upcoming horror fiction series Darkest Night. What’s interesting here: The show’s first season is being sponsored by AMC Network’s new horror streaming service, Shudder.
  • “Is your podcast being held hostage by iTunes?” asks Forbes contributor Sarah Rhea Warner. (Forbes) Pair this with a recent take by a Goldman Sachs analyst: “It’s Time for Apple to Go Big in Content and Launch ‘Apple Prime'” (StreetInsider.com)
  • Two Amazon Echo related reads: “How 3 publishers are staffing for Amazon Echo” (Digiday) and “Yelling at Amazon Echo” (The New Yorker)

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

Is Hillary Clinton’s podcast propaganda or a milestone for political podcast advertising?

With Her. Well, this is certainly something. Last Friday saw the launch of With Her, the official Hillary Clinton presidential campaign podcast, which both marks a milestone for the industry and, I suppose, is a sign of the times. The show also has the distinction of being Pineapple Street Media’s first launch, the podcast company recently founded by former BuzzFeed director of audio Jenna Weiss-Berman and Longform Podcast cohost Max Linsky. Linsky holds hosting duties on the podcast, which he ostensibly shares with Clinton herself, though one imagines that her extensive campaigning schedule will ultimately have a say in that.

The podcast is an absolute coup for the company and a strong, attention-getting start to its portfolio. The linkup between Pineapple Street and the Clinton campaign grew out of Weiss-Berman’s previous collaboration with the team, back when she worked on BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast that booked Clinton on as a guest last October. “I stayed in touch with her digital team,” Weiss-Berman told me over email. “And shortly after Max and I started Pineapple Street, we started talking to them and we all loved the idea of a campaign podcast that focused on day-to-day life on the trail and not policy.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that last point — the podcast’s focused on campaign trail life and not on policy — ended up being the point of critique for a few media outlets. Politico’s writeup of the podcast bore the headline: “Hillary Clinton finds another way to avoid the press: Her campaign launches a podcast with an on-payroll moderator whose first interview is the nominee herself,” highlighting the show as an extension of a long-running grievances held by the parts of the news media about Clinton’s tightly messaged campaign. That perspective was echoed by Michelle Goldberg over at Slate, who called the show “charming and gutless propaganda” and further argued that “a politician attempting to circumvent the media by creating media of her own sets a bad precedent.”

I don’t buy those critiques. For one thing, media creation — whether through tweets, a YouTube channel, creating a TV spectacle out of a convention, and so on — is an essential tool for a candidate’s political communication, and it’s one that’s part of a much wider set of tools, with messaging through the news media (either directly, e.g. sitdowns with Charlie Rose, or indirectly, i.e. free media) being only one within a larger toolkit. A candidate’s aversion to working directly through the press, as in the case of the Clinton campaign, may well be morally and procedurally frustrating for the press, but a perfectly fine outcome in this scenario is to make the absence of participation mean something as part of the candidate’s larger spectrum of political communication. (Which, indeed, is what is already happening, and we see traces of that in Slate and Politico’s analysis.)

So the media aversion/”propaganda” reading of the podcast isn’t one that really resonates with me, but I think the reason for that lies in an understanding that the podcast shouldn’t be read as anything too dramatically different from it actually is: a political ad.

Consider With Her as yet another example of a branded podcast — not unlike Gimlet Creative’s Open for Business or Pacific Content’s Slack Variety Pack. (Indeed, viewed this way, With Her is quite possibly the first major political ad buy in the history of the podcast medium.)

And because it’s a branded podcast, we should levy onto it the very same questions (of ethics and execution) that we would those projects from Gimlet, and Pacific Content. Questions like: Is the show successful in harnessing the format’s associations with sincerity, authenticity, and intimacy? (I.e: Do the interviews make her feel more real, the way the Longform Podcast and Another Round have drawn out people in the past? Also, just how real can a career politician, so hardened by decades of battle, feel?) Is the podcast able to be engaging while nulling the overarching context that the listener has opted to enter a space where the brand is trying to get them to think and feel a certain way? Is the project doing a good job being clear with its targeting — is it focused on deepening the candidate’s relationship with her supporters, or is it more engaged with humanizing Clinton in the face of on-the-fence supporters? And is the podcast, with its opt-in, on-demand, and high-involvement consumption requirements, appropriate for that?

That’s how I’d approach reading the podcast. Which is why I’ll say this: Based on the first episode (which runs short, at about 15 minutes), I’m not very sure whether With Her will answer these questions much beyond its novelty as the first presidential campaign podcast ever. To be sure, it’s a fizzy and fun listen, and longtime Hot Pod readers know I love love love me some Linsky interviews. But as a person already predisposed to the Clinton campaign, I didn’t feel like I gained anything particularly new or meaningful that wasn’t already telegraphed at the Democratic National Convention. And considering the broader messaging context, I also don’t think it’s clear yet who the podcast is for — and, by extension, how it’s supposed to carry out the aims of the campaign, which (and this isn’t a new thought at all) really struggles with connecting.

That said: It’s only been one episode, and I want to be clear that an assessment like this doesn’t quite honor the immense complexities that go into working with a campaign that aims to win the highest office of the land. (I can’t even begin to imagine the number of clearances that the production must go through.) The podcast is slated to run up until the election in November, and I have a good amount of faith that the team will figure out a way to take this powerful, powerful novelty — let’s not forget the fact that the first presidential campaign podcast is a major milestone for the emerging medium — and fashion it out into a genuine tool of political communication in the future.

What’s next for PSM? Weiss-Berman: “We’re working on lots of great stuff and something I’m really excited about is that we’re trying many different styles. So we’re doing a very heavily produced short-run serialized mystery show, a really fun chat show with The New York Times, Women of the Hour season two with Lena Dunham, and we’re developing a bunch of original shows. And so much more! And all the shows are really different, with amazingly diverse hosts, so I’m hoping they bring in audiences that are new to podcasting.”

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The convention bump. The Republican and Democratic conventions were dramatic and often confusing affairs, and it seems like a significant number of folks turned to political podcasts to figure some stuff out. Indeed, several enjoyed noticeable jumps in downloads across the two-week period. Some highlights:

  • The NPR Politics Podcast saw more than a 50 percent increase in weekly unique downloaders. (That metric tracks the number of individual listeners based on measurements of IP addresses.) The podcast dropped episodes every morning across the conventions, with each edition covering the goings-on of the night before.
  • Panoply reportedly experienced a 35 percent increase in weekly downloads (over the average of the previous four weeks) among their set of political podcasts: the Slate Political Gabfest, The Gist, and Vox’s The Weeds. The Gist, which is already a daily podcast, opted to drop short review episodes every morning in addition to its normal episodes across the period. The other two shows maintained their weekly schedules.
  • The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast also saw “a big rise in downloads and rankings,” according to producer Jody Avirgan. A spokesperson later added that over the convention period, the team “saw consumption of the Elections podcast increase nearly 300 percent compared to daily consumption before the conventions.” The podcast also dropped episodes daily across the two events.
  • The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600, which features former Obama administration staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, saw a bump of about 15 percent. Before the conventions, the podcast had steadily grown up to an average of over 200,000 downloads per episode, and went up to about 230,000 downloads per episode through the two events.
  • BuzzFeed’s No One Knows Anything saw a “171 percent increase in downloads during the two weeks of the conventions, compared to the two weeks before the conventions,” said Meg Cramer, who produces the show. “But, it’s hard to make comparisons, because our convention coverage was different from our weekly show. (Several topical mini-episodes, vs. one big show.)”

These event-based growth bursts are extremely valuable, but the real question is whether the shows will be able to retain the influx of new listeners. Brent Baughman, who produces the NPR Politics Podcast, tells me that, while it’s still a little too early to tell, he estimates that about three-quarters of the podcast’s new listeners have stuck around since the conventions. He also notes that the podcast now enjoys an audience of over 560,000 weekly unique downloaders.

It should be noted that the bumps didn’t come from organic discovery alone. Around the convention period, FiveThirtyEight carried out aggressive cross-promotion efforts that hoped to draw in audiences that exist on its other platforms and on platforms controlled by parent ESPN. Those efforts included a refocus on embedding the podcast in FiveThirtyEight articles, adding language that welcomed new listeners to the show, featuring the podcast in the ESPN app, and working with ESPN Radio to run a spot on terrestrial stations promoting the podcast. “That’s going to start working into the rotation soon, I hope,” Avirgan added. “It’s not going to be a huge push, but frankly I imagine a lot of the kinds of folks who are just tuning in to the election are the types of folks who are listening to ESPN Radio, etc. So, we’re trying to be smart about targeting that group.”

NPR marshalled similar efforts of their own. On July 14, Gimlet’s Reply All dropped an episode containing a guest dispatch by NPR reporter and Politics Podcast cohost Sam Sanders (who, by the way, is an absolute star) that focused on the shooting in Dallas. And in the following two weeks, NPR director of programming Israel Smith coordinated a strong cross-promotion push across the organization’s other podcasts, acutely focusing attention onto the Politics Podcast and its presence on the convention floors.

Key national events like these conventions are essential opportunities for podcasts — or any new medium, really — to prove their worth as possible additions to the world’s wider information architecture, and the onus is on them to make themselves known in times when collective reality feels increasingly distorted.

“I think you build news consumption habits in a year like this,” Baughman said. “It’s a time when you generally want to be more informed than you are.”

An audio newsletter. It’s always a wonder to find a place that’s doing strange and wonderful things.

One such place is Boston public radio station WBUR, which will be launching an experimental 21-day fitness podcast project called The Magic Pill next month. Here’s how it works: People who sign up will receive daily Magic Pill newsletters, with each missive — that can be consumed right off their inbox — containing a short podcast episode that contains exercise tips, stories about fitness, and even some music to get that body movin’. Participants move through three-week-long sequence on their own, as they’re given the ability to initiate the challenge cycle at any time, and their relationship with the podcast will be tightly managed through their interactions with the newsletter.

“In a way, you could call this an audio newsletter,” said Lisa Williams, who holds the title of engagement director at the station. “It’s a real hybrid.”

The challenge is one of the many projects being developed in WBUR’s Public Radio BizLab, a Knight Foundation-funded initiative that seeks to explore possible new business models that can help sustain public radio stations in the future through rigorous experimentation and design. (And let me tell ya’, some of these experiments are fascinating, including a blockchain-powered emerging music library.) The lab is a smart, deeply needed enterprise and, quite frankly, I’m amazed that such a thing exists in the first place.

Like all other BizLab projects, The Magic Pill was designed to answer very specific, testable questions: Could you create a tightly-design podcast experience that plays out within a subscriber’s inbox (as opposed to, say, an RSS feed)? Can the process of creating that experience increase the level of data literacy among the operators at WBUR? And, perhaps most importantly, are listeners who take part in an ongoing experience more likely to donate or become members?

That last question, which focuses on discovering new fundraising avenue within the public radio system, is a crucial pillar for the BizLab initiative. And much of the project designs are guided by tangible, and often frustrating, past experiences. “We did this great project once on Whitey Bulger,” Williams said. “It was just such amazing work, but we didn’t do anything to package it in a way that would get people to support the station more. But when we packaged and sold it as an ebook, about 11,000 people bought it. We left money on the table.” (Interestingly, the ebook, “Whitey on Trial,” is generally available for free, but it’s priced at $1.99 on the Amazon Store — the lowest possible rate — because ebooks can’t be listed there for free.)

When I asked Williams what conversion rates she would consider a success, she guided me to focus more on the balance between outcome and effort. She noted that relatively low conversion rates would still be considered fine, given that the amount of work that goes into making The Magic Pill is significantly less than the huge fundraising efforts that involve heavy participation across the whole station. In Williams’ mind, the emphasis is on the tightness of workflow and a rigor in pushing specific sets of audiences down the fundraising funnel. It is a valiant, refreshing prospect, and I’m curious to see where this goes.

You can sign up for the newsletter here. The Magic Pill project goes live on September 1.

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Bumpers. I believe I’ve been on the record before as not particularly enthusiastic about social audio apps and any relevant enterprise that seeks to make podcasts more shareable on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook more broadly. For me, the arguments largely takes two forms: (1) a sense that the rendering of a piece of media into something more shareable threatens to deconstruct, atomize, and commoditize that piece of media for a whole other purpose — and for podcasts, that fundamentally means a stripping it of its original value proposition, and (2) a general feeling that social platforms are universes upon themselves whose activities should be native to the very structures of those platforms. Plus, there’s a whole square peg/round hole bit to such efforts, and I just find it all rather inelegant.

That said, I’ve still made it a point to keep an eye on new social audio apps like Anchor (my write up here) and Rolltape (R.I.P., my write up here) because I figured there’s always something to learn from such experiments.

Which is why I’ve been tracking a new app called Bumpers for some time now and, I have to say, it’s perhaps the audio-oriented app that comes closest to deconstructing and replicating the original value proposition of a podcast. Where apps like Anchor and Rolltape focused on communication, Bumpers firmly trains its eye on creation and expression — and that, I think, is where it gets the association right.

Here’s how it works: Users record a session through the app, which then automatically segments the recording based on sentences that users can stitch together into a podcast (referred to as a bumper within the app’s universe, for obvious reasons) by selecting and sequencing those sentence units into a whole through the app’s rather intuitive mobile audio editing interface (which, goodness, is key to the whole experience). There’s a library of preset sounds that you can throw into the mix, the additions of which greatly influences the feel of the bumper — not unlike, say, how an Instagram filter alters the feel of a picture.

That evocation of Instagram is not accidental. “I think a good analogy is Instagram for podcasts,” said Ian Ownbey, one of Bumpers’ creators, when I asked him to describe the app, which I had trouble articulating. “Instagram’s goal wasn’t to replace professional photographers — it was to let everyone else easily take and share high quality photos.”

Ownbey, who was an early engineer at Twitter and is also responsible for the OneShot app (which I’ve written about in relation to the theory behind screenshorting audio), has been paying close attention to the dynamics of the podcast space to build Bumpers, and thus is privy the complexities associated with the distribution and listener-end of the ecosystem. A lot of those considerations inform the development of the app.

“The problem isn’t solvable as long as the community is fractured over all these different consumption mediums,” he said, reflecting on the distribution question. “Even if I went out and created a consumption client that had the best discoverability in the whole world, it would be impossible to get adoption high enough that it was useful…If all the listening happens in Bumpers itself (or in an embed from bumpers), we can start to solve these problems.”

For now, though, it’s still early days for Bumpers, and so tackling the distribution angle will have to be a future preoccupation. “Creation is our entire focus right now,” Ownbey said.

Bites:

  • A little more on the NPR Politics Podcast: Producer Brent Baughman believes the experience producing the daily convention episodes have given them a roadmap for possible breaking or morning news podcast projects in the future. “Someone’s going to plant the flag on the morning news podcast, and I think it can be us,” he said.
  • I am super, super psyched over Castro 2, a new podcasting app that shifts the user experience paradigm in such smart, wonderful ways. (Supertop)
  • After the Cleveland Browns, another NFL team has launched their own official podcast: the Baltimore Ravens. (Official Ravens website)
  • According to Current, “the audience for NPR’s newsmagazines and its member stations has been growing,” bucking a recent trend. The organization credits the rise to a bunch of different factors — much of them internally driven, but also one that involves a change in how Nielsen collects listening data — but as Tape’s Mickey Capper tweets out, “wouldn’t the main factor be the election?” Be sure to check out the ensuing thread.
  • “The (Future) Queens of Podcasting.” (The Ringer)
  • This is super cool: “Introducing 1,000 Words, a podcast that describes internet pictures in binaural audio.” (The Verge)

A new player aims to bring the podcast advertising analytics some want (and others fear)

Art19 steps into the spotlight. “We’re not really pulling ourselves out of beta,” said Sean Carr, cofounder and CEO of Art19, a California-based tech startup that’s built a podcast hosting, monetization, and distribution platform. “We’re just ready to make some noise and draw attention to ourselves.”

And you should, indeed, pay attention.

Art19 organized a small press push last week, which comes after a long period of relative quiet for the company. The messaging in the push included a good amount of detail illustrating the company’s technological proposition to the podcast industry: the foundational elements for a shift away from the industry’s download count-oriented, RSS feed-driven paradigm towards one that focuses its counts on whether an ad within a download or stream has been initiated, consumed, or skipped by a listener — what Carr refers to as listener telemetry, a term he emphasized when we spoke over the phone last week.

And what are the foundational elements that make up that new paradigm? “To start with, we’re offering embeddable players and, more importantly, APIs that are public so that both our partners and third-party consumer apps can connect to us,” Carr said, laying out a vision of the future where more data would be flowing with greater freedom throughout the podcast ecosystem. He quickly added: “But to be clear: We won’t be using that data. We’re a SaaS [software as a service] company.”

The company’s push towards an API-connected listening orientation is, in my mind, more or less what much of the professionalizing layer of the podcast community — from bigger networks to advertisers to agencies — have been asking for when they lament about the medium’s measurability woes: greater means to look into the consumption behavior around an episode, and therefore greater capacity to cultivate trust and buy-in from more advertisers.

(Conversely, it’s also precisely what much of the podcasts-as-extension-of-the-free-web have been arguing against, fearing the platform control that often happens when a piece of technology emerges that potentially grants more power to bigger entities. I’ve always been of the position that technological developments are inevitable, and that the discourse should always be focused on cultivating better regulation structures and a new system of balance instead of attempting to limit such developments.)

But of course, for Art19’s gambit to work, the company would need to secure the trust and participation of a critical mass of partners — including publishers, agencies, advertisers, and distributors, among others — in order to build a coalition that would work to actually shift the paradigm across the industry. Indeed, while there’s a general hunger to move away from RSS feeds and download counts as the standard, there will always be the problem of inertia (e.g. “we’ve been making buys and allocating budgets this way for a while now”) and, more pressingly, there will always be the problem of politics. One imagines that Art19’s competitors — including but not limited to Libsyn, Panoply’s Megaphone, PRX’s Dovetail, Triton Digital’s Tap, and Acast — would want to be the anchor of any such paradigm shift themselves — or, at the very least, for no one to be the anchor, perhaps through some open-sourced alternative.

And so it’s crucial to examine the key allies that the company has secured. At this time, Art19’s major clients include: (1) Wondery, the L.A.-based podcast network recently started by the former CEO and president of Fox International Channels; (2) DGital Media, the network that produces podcasts for Recode, Yahoo’s The Vertical, Fortune, and the UFC, among others; and perhaps most crucially, (3) Midroll Media, which is currently in the process of moving its entire Earwolf network onto the platform and will now be pitching Art19 as its preferred platform to its wide range of ad sales clients. The company is also expected to make a few more major partnership announcements by the end of this month.

The company also appears to have a strong ally in the agency world in the form of Ogilvy & Mather, the well-known advertising agency that’s part of the WPP network. Teddy Lynn, the agency’s chief creative officer for content and social, has been involved in Art19’s press push. “I’ve been working with Sean for many, many years,” Lynn told me. “What I can say: For close to a decade, podcasting has been a very rudimentary ad unit that one can buy. And I think Art19 is advancing the medium to a place where media buyers would feel comfortable buying.” An AdExchanger article further notes that Art19’s platform design was designed with agency input, and that’s something that shouldn’t be discounted.

Art19 will likely be served well by its twin alliances with Midroll and Ogilvy. As one of the bigger players in the space, Midroll has deeper pockets following its acquisition by Scripps, and its expansionist sensibilities should make them as strong advocate for Art19’s technological vision in the marketplace over the long run. And in Ogilvy, Art19 has an advocate for legitimacy in the agency world, which is key to unlock the next level of advertising dollars for the medium.

But the question is whether that’s enough, and who else Art19 is able to bring into its vision: more publishers, the right podcast distributors and apps, the critical mass of advertisers. And of course, whether the company will be able to ward off coalitions formed by other sectors of the industry, whether it comes from another hosting platform — or from something else entirely.

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A new model for branded content? Slate launched a new podcast last week, Placemakers, that’s a bit of a complicated beast to explain. On the surface, it’s a show about urban revitalization, with host Rebecca Sheir traveling across the country, reporting out city-specific stories on the subject. Sheir is a public radio veteran who has served at NPR, WAMU, and the Alaska Public Radio Network.

But the podcast is also the product of a branded content partnership with JPMorgan Chase, the multinational banking organization. The bank is underwriting the show’s 18 editorial episodes — which, I’m told, are completely produced by the Slate editorial team — and is directly involved with three additional sponsored episodes, which will tell JPMorgan Chase-centered stories about urban revitalization in Detroit, Seattle, and New Orleans. Those three branded episodes are produced by the Panoply Custom team, the unit within Panoply, Slate’s sister podcasting company, that’s in charge of building out branded podcasts for clients. That team’s portfolio includes Purina’s DogSmarts, Umpqua Bank’s Open Account, and most notably, the audio sci-fi drama The Message, which came out of a collaboration with GE.

“The project came about from both the editorial and advertising sides having a shared passion about the revitalization of urban cities,” said Keith Hernandez, president of Slate, when we spoke last week. “[Slate editor-in-chief] Julia Turner was really excited about the subject, and when we brought it to the JPMorgan Chase team we figured out that they were really excited about it too.”

Serendipitous as it may be, the long-running concern of a show like this — one where it’s not all that easy to tell at what point the Slate voice ends and the JPMorgan Chase one begins, given how complicatedly blended the two actors are within the larger project — is how the line between editorial and advertorial is established and communicated. This concern reared its voluminous head again just last week, when the Online Trust Association released a report that found that 71 percent of native ads that appeared on the homepages of the top 100 news websites were providing inadequate disclosures and transparencies that help audience make the distinction between an ad and an editorial content. (The report also instigated a fascinating and feisty Twitter joust between Current’s Adam Ragusea and On The Media’s Bob Garfield.) No such report has been conducted yet for on-demand audio, but it goes without saying that this issue stretches across all mediums that are involved in the possible production of journalistic content.

Which raised to me the question: How exactly will Placemakers illustrate that line for listeners?

“There’s going to be a different host for the three sponsored episodes,” Hernandez replied. “We want this to be clear and evident that these are special episodes. There are also going to be, ahead of time, midroll and post-roll announcements within the episodes that custom episodes are coming.”

Hernandez also suggested that Placemakers is an early prototype of a new branded content model: one that involves the production of branded spinoffs from a pre-existing show. “Brands are moving away from an idea of themselves as a bland corporate entity…they want something deeper than a brand logo. I think this is just the beginning of a longer trend, of brands digging deeper into ideas and building relationships with the publishing community,” Hernandez said. “And I think this Placemakers model is scalable: How do we take existing shows and find an interesting spinoff that could be dedicated to a brand and leverage the sensibility of those shows?”

Of course, the “pre-existing” show in this case had to be made contemporaneously with the branded campaign, but the proposition here stands. (Also worth noting: This notion of a branded spinoff shares some structural similarity to the My Brother, My Brother and Me’s bonus episode sponsored by Totino’s Pizza Rolls, which I wrote about back in May.)

When I asked about the size of the deal — whether it was larger than previous Custom partnerships — Hernandez declined to comment, understandably. But he did answer my question about JPMorgan Chase’s expectation for the campaign, calling it an “evolving conversation” and one that respects the experimental nature of the project. Hernandez also tells me that the campaign will be playing around with on-site and off-site promotion, including a popup website, native ad units on the Slate website, and paid units on social (not unlike what they’ve been running with Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History).

Before signing off, I asked Hernandez how Panoply was doing on the whole. Understandably, again, he express immense optimism around the company’s position, and in particular, the potential of Megaphone, its CMS platform. “Megaphone is going to be a game-changer,” he said.

(Disclaimer: Panoply used to be my day-job employer, way back when.)

For The New York Times, a politics podcast of its own. Called The Run Up, the show is hosted by Times national political reporter Michael Barbaro and will cover this long, painful, brain-melting American presidential election cycle as its trundles through its final three months. (Hence, the name.) According to the PR email I received about the launch, the podcast will release new episodes twice a week and will serve listeners with “engaging conversations around the 2016 election and keep them up to speed about what happened (and what might happen),” with some key interviews thrown in here and there. From that description, it doesn’t seem like The Run Up will differ very much from other elections podcasts as far as structure is concerned, which suggests that the major differentiator between podcasts in this genre lies within the nexus of the analysis, access to key interviews, and discussion quality more broadly.

But thinking this through a little further, I’m wont to wonder: Just how much can you stretch this particular genre in terms of form and structure? And how much of that stretching is actually necessary to create a strong enough hook, or develop a genuinely novel value proposition, for new audiences? I’m tempted to credit BuzzFeed’s No One Knows Anything with legitimately attempting a new hook — that is, trying to keep a distance from the horse-race coverage and working to tell broader stories about the election, while aiming at a demographic that’s less bought into the cycle — but 23 episodes in, the show as a whole does seem to feel very much a part of the larger plethora of elections podcasts that we’ve seen to date, at least to my ears. (Though if I’m pressed to identify a show that’s done a good job providing a genuinely novel value proposition, I’d point to the tight set of election-related episodes in Scott Carrier’s Home of the Brave, which has been stringing together on-the-ground missives that have been furiously visceral, constantly surprising, and often terrifying.)

Anyway, I’m reminded that this is the Times’ first podcast rollout since bringing on WBUR’s Lisa Tobin as the organization’s new executive producer for audio; she started work just last month. I was also able to find out that this podcast is being produced completely in-house, and not as the product of an external partnership like Modern Love, which is a collaboration with WBUR, and the now-defunct Ethicists podcast, which was produced with Panoply. For those keeping tabs at home, the organization is slated to produce a show with Pineapple Street Media, which we’ll probably be treated to sometime in the near future.

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Multi-story. This is interesting: ESPN is currently in the middle of a new multi-platform initiative that “could be a model for future storytelling at the sports network,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The initiative, called Pin Kings, is a documentary narrative that follows the story of two former high school wrestling teammates that go on to be on different sides of the East Coast drug war.

The first phase of the initiative is a 16-episode podcast miniseries that drops new episodes every weekday. At this writing, we’re on episode 7, and the narrative is being unfolded through a mixture of host narrations — which are done by Brett Forrest, the reporter who has been working on this story for over a year, and producer Jon Fish — and subject interviews. The podcast will lead up to a one-hour primetime television special that’ll broadcast on ESPN2 August 22, which will then be followed by a big print feature on the August 26 issue of ESPN the Magazine.

Personally, I’m curious how all the platforms will complement one another in terms of audience development and management: How will audiences be aggregated across the different platforms, and how will they be monetized? Which leads us to a broader question: What level of monetization would make a podcast-involved multiplatform initiative like this worth it for ESPN, a massive and principally TV-driven operation (though not for long, possibly)? That’s a question, I believe, that’s a perfectly relevant query for all other major media organizations dabbling in podcast-land.

Bites:

    • “SoundCloud owners said to mull $1 billion sale of music service.” Pretty speculative article, but it’s worth monitoring this potential development if you’ve been relying on the service for revenue in any way. (Bloomberg)
  • “How NPR marketed the second season of its hit podcast Invisibilia.” Number to watch: The podcast has currently achieved 10 million downloads, according to the report, which is lower than the first season’s tally of 50 million downloads. Of course, these numbers are difficult to discern without an apples-to-apples time period, which we’re not given, and the report further notes that NPR has changed how it counts downloads in order to minimize the possibility of duplicate counts. (Digiday)
  • Podtrac’s July podcast publisher ranking report shows a lineup that’s virtually unchanged since June, with NPR holding the top spot ahead of WNYC Studios and This American Life. Though, as RAIN News notes, the report observed a 5 percent increase in unique streams and downloads this month compared to last. As always, the usual disclaimers about the ranker apply. (Podtrac, RAIN News)
  • The Guardian’s new interactive for the Rio Olympics: Pokémon Go meets Detour/walking tours. You knew it had to happen. (The Guardian)
  • Saavn, a New York-based digital distributor of primarily Bollywood and Indian regional audio entertainment, announced a new set of original spoken word programming last week. Keep an eye on this company, and keep an eye on India. (Yahoo Finance)
  • “When will YouTube deal with its audiobook and podcast piracy problem?” Yeah, YouTube. When are you gonna do dat. (Observer)

Yay Olympics.

Like it or not, audio is entering the Content Wars. How do we navigate that fight?

“This isn’t about arguing who’s right or wrong,” writes Federico Viticci, a technology blogger who publishes on his own independently operated site, Mac Stories. “It’s about recognizing the divergence of needs and opinions in an industry that, in many ways, is still in its formative years.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up where we are right this second in the podcast community. On the one hand, you have a set of professionalizing, ambitious podcast companies pushing for better data analytics, discovery, and revenue opportunities — gripes that should be familiar if you read this column with any frequency — in their pursuit for maturity and considerable growth. And on the other hand, you have a grassroots population which has thus far enjoyed a version of the open internet, one that results from a delicate balance of power facilitated by the medium’s relative niche status up until this point.

At stake in the tension between these two camps is, frankly, the fate of the medium’s future. (How dramatic! How lovely.)

It’s a story as old as content. But let’s start from the beginning.

Over the weekend, The New York Times published a spicy article by John Herrman — a media critic-savant who wrote the excellent “Content Wars” column when he was a staffer at The Awl —  about the relationship between the emerging podcast industry and Apple, which at this point still commands an outsized measure of influence over the space, and how those relationship dynamics define the current state that the professionalizing podcast industry finds itself in.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing, obviously, and there are so many nuances baked into the report, but the two key elements I want to focus on to get to the heart of this narrative are the following:

(1) The article paints a picture of a professionalizing and ambitious industry frustrated by the limits of its dependencies on Apple’s infrastructure, which still maintains its outsized influence on the space. The article interprets Apple as an indifferent steward of a podcast ecosystem that exists at the fringes of the company’s operational focus — a state of affairs that may be shifting, by the way, following reports that suggest an increasing shift in focus toward services (see this Wall Street Journal article, and also this Bloomberg article on Apple Music) — and it chiefly illustrates this by exploring how the team that curates the iTunes promotions page, one of the very few reliable drivers for discovery and marketing in the space, is remarkably small and largely managed by one individual. (Hey Steve!)

(2) The heart of the piece is as follows: “The question for podcasters — and for Apple — is about what comes next,” Herrman writes. “Apple has at least two obvious choices: to rush to accommodate an industry that is quickly outgrowing its origins, or to let podcasting be, at the risk of losing its claim over a medium that owes its very name to the company.”

The piece is, by and large, consistent with my own reading of the space, and I say this with full awareness that my coverage and focus has always been on the podcast companies, entities, and individuals that are agitating against the status quo for the purposes of growth.

That distinction is notable, because the article drew criticism from the grassroots layer of the ecosystem. The critique principally came from Marco Arment, the creator of the relatively well-known podcasting app Overcast and something of an elder statesman for the older end of the podcast ecosystem. (Arment is also an angel investor in Gimlet, curiously enough.)

Writing on his blog, Arment expresses a deep skepticism of podcast entities advocating for more data and involvement from Apple. He argues that, in their endeavors to further grow their businesses, these agitating companies will end up compelling changes that fundamentally compromise the open nature of the medium. Apple would take control over a previously open ecosystem, and all of this would lead to the creation of a “data economy” that deleteriously commoditizes the entire space. The medium would naturally shift to a state that shuts out independent creators forever. Arment’s critique is, essentially, an argument of the slippery slope variety.

“Podcasting has been growing steadily for over a decade and extends far beyond the top handful of public-radio shows,” Arment argues. “Their needs are not everyone’s needs, they don’t represent everyone, and many podcasters would not consider their goals an ‘advancement’ of the medium.”

I’ve been tracking this entire conversation since the very second that the Times piece dropped, and I’m still struggling to find my own position on this. (It’s hard to form a take in such a short period of time, and I imagine my feelings will go through several iterations.)

But frankly, I’m torn.

On the one hand, I am thoroughly invested in seeing podcasts grow, mature, and further professionalize into a Big, Big Industry. I’d like this industry to grow to a point where it can command high and reliable revenue margins and generate high volumes of employment opportunities for creative audio professionals (not everybody can be self-employed and run a small, independent shop). I’d like the industry to wield cultural influence and become capable of tremendous impact. And I simply don’t believe any of that is possible — at least, it’s incredibly difficult, a factor that I’d argue influences the industry’s financial accessibility — without much of what the professionalizing podcast entities are pushing for.

I just don’t buy the notion of retaining the podcast’s RSS 2.0 roots and the black box nature of its knowability… like, I get the romance and nostalgia of it, I just think that’s really regressive.

At the same time, I have my own background concerns over whether the podcast companies that will grow to constitute Big Podcasting — Gimlet, Panoply, Midroll — will collectively drive the ecosystem to a state that reductively commoditizes the form and freezes out independents. (Those ad loads, they keep getting heavier and heavier. I see you.) And I do very much want to retain a relatively open podcast environment (no matter how conditional that openness is) where crazy shit like The Worst Idea Of All Time can still have a shot at an audience, no matter how small the chance of discovery.

Indeed, the tension between the two communities with very separate needs and beliefs that share the same infrastructure is very real. It’s podcasts-as-blogs versus podcasts-as-future of radio, it’s the independents versus the corporate. But whatever happens with Apple, we’re going to have to confront this question. The push toward professionalization is fully underway. As Herrman put it succinctly in a series of tweets: “Whether or not Apple encourages it, online audio will develop beyond current infrastructure… Anyway, I understand horror at the industrialization of a creative medium. Participants I talked to think it’s coming one way or another. So the question *right now* is: by apple’s hand, or someone else’s. These conversations should sound familiar!”

The question is, then: Can we cultivate a media universe that can effectively and simultaneously support two very, very different kinds of communities without compromising the integrity and efforts of each?

It’s not a matter of whether we will see audio float into the Content Wars, it’s a matter of how we navigate that fight. Yes, the way forward opens up a universe of potential horrors: atrocious advertising ad experiences, advertising fraud (which already happens, by the way), excessively invasive tracking mechanisms that grossly compromise personal privacy, and so on.

But what the hell: you can’t make an omelet without cracking open a few skulls, and you can’t get the great without running the risk of getting the very, very bad. Things will change — things always change — but there will be new balances of power to find. And maybe it’s naive, but I believe there absolutely can be a future that’s better for every one of us.

Two more quick things:

  • The Times article had a particularly interesting news hook: Late last month, seven “leading podcast professionals” were reportedly invited to Apple to air their grievances for a collection of employees. According to a source who was present, that group was a mix between newer, enterprising Big Podcast companies and folks from what can only be described as the “older guard.” My source also mentioned that there were no representatives from public radio.
  • Some perspective from friend-of-the-newsletter Joseph Fink, who tweeted me the following: “I was interviewed for that article, but guess my response of ‘Yeah I dunno, it’s all pretty much fine’ wasn’t interesting.”

Measured. Time now for someone much smarter than me to weigh in. I recently asked Andrew Kuklewicz, chief technology officer at PRX, to talk a bit about his vision for some sort of middle ground in requests for increased data granularity. He writes:

There’s data, and there’s creepy data. I want to know what anonymous people actually play and hopefully hear. We don’t need to fall down the creepy, slippery, slope and get names, blood types, or shoe sizes. We can survive without this, but it’s easier to sell new sponsors on audience numbers that resemble reality rather than shared fictions.

I don’t know what others are asking for, but I’m not looking for Apple to extend their store model to podcasts. Even if they did, I expect and hope it would be one option among many built on podcasting. I also value the openness of podcasting, with its underlying standards, but standards progress when there is competition fueling innovation. As web browsers got better with competition, so did their standards. I want podcasting to do the same — progress made with competition on products and content, but cooperation on open standards, platforms, and measures.

It will be messy, messier than a benevolent monopoly, but I also agree with keeping independence over ceding control to buy simplicity.

One important footnote on data and listening metrics: Doc Searls, the furthest thing from a sell-out when it comes to privacy and people owning their data, has pushed for an idea where people should own their own listening data, and share with whom they choose. Most great ideas are tried a few times before they take off (e.g., “six degrees” before Facebook), maybe six years later we should give Listen Log another go.

Sweet.

Designing an elections podcast for the non-wonk. If you’re launching an elections podcast, man, I don’t envy you. It’s one of the most saturated podcast genres in the market right now, a state of affairs not unrelated to the fact that there’s a U.S. presidential election going on and it’s all been absolute bonkers.

A sample list of elections pods, which has considerably grown since the last time I discussed political pods: the NPR Politics podcast, the FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast, Politico’s 2016 Nerdcast, Mic and The Economist’s Special Relationship, Slate’s longtime stalwart Political Gabfest and the topically driven Trumpcast, MTV News’ The Stakes, The New Republic’s “Primary Concerns, Vox’s The Weeds (occasionally; the show largely sticks to policy), The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 (featuring former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, no less), The Huffington Post’s Candidate Confessional, Futuro Media Group’s In the Thick, The Pollsters, and so on.

(For the record: I listen to a bunch of these, largely because…well, it’s my job, for one thing, and also because I’m just a very curious foreign person despite my inability to actually vote. But man, I can’t even begin to imagine how any discerning voter should choose from this pile.)

Into the fray walks No One Knows Anything, a new political podcast from BuzzFeed. No One Knows Anything is the company’s sixth podcast overall, and the last show launched before Jenna Weiss-Berman, BuzzFeed’s director of audio, left the company to launch her own podcast venture. It also has the distinction of being the first in BuzzFeed’s pod roster that actively draws from talent and material from its news desk. Anchored by BuzzFeed politics reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro, the show aims to distinguish itself from the gabfest-style horse race roundup pod formats of its competitors, choosing instead to tell larger stories about the election.

I recently talked to Meg Cramer, who produces the show (and who previously worked at APM’s Marketplace), and asked her a bunch of questions about the show’s design, podcast structures more broadly, and miscellaneous production-related things. Here are excerpts from our chat:

On process. “We’re on a weekly production schedule. We do it a little differently every time. We don’t script the show…we have very, very light scripting, and what we do instead is, like, we have a loose structure, we go into the studio, Evan and his guest host will move through the structure and hit every point, riff if they want to, usually beforehand we have the ‘found sound’ audio planned out. So if we know that we have a supercut of people saying “Trump will never get elected,” I’ll be in the studio cuing that up and they’ll react to the cut in real time. And then we put the tracking together with all the interviews in whatever order they happen in, listen to a rough cut of the episode, and then do an edit altogether, and then go back and do pickups.”

On the structure of the show. “There are lots of things that you can refer to when you talk about structure. You can say, ‘every episode we will have this kind of segment,’ or ‘every episode we will do a certain thing.’ And I try really hard to resist that because I think it can be very tempting to give yourself a superstructure when you start a project, and you also learn that your superstructure was maybe a cool idea or a cool concept but it turns out to be very restricting and it doesn’t let you tell certain stories. It winds up being a situation where you’re working for the structure rather than have it work for you.”

On the relationship to the news cycle. “There will be times where we have to speak to the news that’s happening that week, but for the most part, I don’t think that’s what we’re going to do. Because for the most part, that’s what a lot of other political shows do. And we’re trying not to be like a wrap-up show, and we’re trying to tell stories about things that have already happened because we want as much information as we can get when we tell those stories. We don’t want to predict — this is like an anti-prediction show.”

On the show’s target audience. “We’re trying to serve a general news audience with a show about politics, because there are lots of things that serve the political news audience and we’re trying to reach a broader group of people than that. People who are not necessarily political junkies, but who care about their vote. They’re probably going to vote, but they really care about who the next president is going to be and they want to be thoughtful about how they cast their vote.”

On newsroom integration. “I’m interested to learn what it’s like to get a lot of people in a newsroom involved in podcasting. I think places like Slate have their flagships shows where people get to try out being on a show — being a panelist, being a guest — and they get to see if they’re good at it. I think that one thing that I’m really excited about this project is that it’s not going to just be about me and Evan. I’m excited that other people in the newsroom get to try out having a big voice on this platform.”

You can find the pod here.

Reservations over dynamic ad insertion. I haven’t written about dynamic ad insertion in a while, and I really should, because it’s one of the bigger narratives that’s been driving the technology piece of the space for the past year or so.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, podcast hosting platforms that support dynamic ad insertion would allow publishers to easily swap out ad spots within a given podcast episode. This structurally breaks podcasts away from having “baked-in” ads — where they are one with the episode for the rest of time (or the internet, or until somebody replaces the file) — and drives them to a state where the ad inventory of a given episode is dramatically deepened and the friction of ad serving is drastically reduced. It also sets the conditions for tailored advertising experiences like geotargeting and a programmatic audio advertising business to be built somewhere down the line.

To put it another way: money, money, money for publishers. If they can swing it, of course.

It’s a vision of the future that’s renders the podcast space drastically different in its monetization potential compared to whatever’s come before, one that would make podcasts function like the rest of the internet — for good or for bad, we don’t know yet (see the newsletter’s headline item). I imagine it’s being pitched as a win-win situation; advertisers get to more specifically target listeners, and publishers get to squeeze more value out of a given ad slot.

But some advertisers are not without reservations. Advertisers like Mack Weldon, the fancy bright-colored underwear startup, which now dedicates about a quarter of its monthly ad spend to podcast buys.

I recently traded emails with Collin Willardson, Mack Weldon’s marketing manager, about some of his concerns. He listed out three in particular:

  • Firstly, Willardson argued that the imposition of format requirements for dynamic ad insertion support would end up putting a cap on the creative vitality that can go into the ad read. “Our biggest reservation with dynamic ads is that the ad is capped at thirty seconds,” he wrote. “We have found success when the host is allowed to do the read however long they feel best. They’ll know if they get the message across to their listeners, and sometimes they aren’t able to do that in just thirty seconds or less.” (I imagine the thirty-second cap may differ from platform to platform and from show to show depending on how campaigns are sold, but I take his overall point.)
  • Secondly, Willardson touched upon the arbitrage value being lost when ads are no longer permanent — an appealing feature for some buyers. “Another reservation is knowing that our ad will not be there forever,” he argued. “We want to be associated with the show we have chosen carefully, even if you listen to it five years from now. There is something special about being a part of a show that you can listen to and be entertained by five years later, and we want to be a part of that experience.”
  • Finally, Willardson brings up what may well be the fundamental hurdle presented by the technology: the dissolution of the “intimacy” so associated with the media format. “Dynamic ad insertion disassociates the host from the advertiser, so they care less about the actual product or brand they’re trying to sell. Audiences pick up on that, and quickly tune out. On a medium with a built-in fifteen-second skip button, a thirty-second ad is too easily never heard,” he wrote.

I’ve been hearing variations of these concerns from a few advertisers — all of which are direct response advertisers relatively new to the medium — over the past few weeks. For what it’s worth, I don’t think these reservations are particularly insurmountable or fundamentally detract from the value of dynamic ad insertion technology; rather, my sense that Willardson’s arguments stem from a frustration with the pitches currently being made by podcast publishers.

Bites:

  • The worst kept NPR pod secret is finally out: the Code Switch podcast will launch May 31. In case you’re unfamiliar, Code Switch is NPR’s FABULOUS blog that covers stories on race, ethnicity, and culture. The pod is going to be hosted by Gene Demby (who also hosts the Post-Bourgie pod) and Shereen Marisol Meraji. I, for one, am extremely excited about this.
  • Eleanor Kagan is BuzzFeed’s new director of audio. She produces Another Round, and will continue doing in addition to developing new projects. (Twitter)
  • Katelyn Bogucki, who has until this point headed up the Huffington Post’s podcast operation, is heading over to Gimlet, where she joins the company’s creative team.
  • “From out of nowhere, the U.S. Energy Department launches a great podcast.” (The Verge)

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